Heat Wave’s Final Chapter Is Cold, Lonely : Weather: Elderly, poor victims of Chicago tragedy are buried in mass grave.
As quietly and dispassionately as they died, the last victims of the brutal heat wave of 1995 were laid to rest Friday in a mass grave 160 feet long, 10 feet wide and the traditional six feet deep.
The temperature was a muggy 78 degrees, 28 degrees cooler than the record set on July 13--the 106-degree day that probably felled most of the 591 people in metropolitan Chicago who did not survive five days of blast-oven weather.
No one will know the dates of death for sure. Most of the fatalities were elderly, poor and alone, leaving so small a mark on the world that it was days before anyone noticed they were gone and their bodies were finally discovered. For Chicago, the astonishingly high toll was a lesson in how easy it is to disappear while still alive, a stunning realization of how isolated and fearful many old people here are.
Forty-one of the corpses taken to the Cook County morgue during those horrible days of revelation still remain alone in death. They never were claimed, despite the best efforts of county investigators.
They found the name of a daughter for Mildred Stojkovic, age 70, but the certified letter they sent was returned.
The daughter of Leonard Hymer, 66, was located in an affluent suburb. She said on the telephone she’d like to see the furnished room where her father had spent his last days, but she never took responsibility for his funeral.
Thomas Randle, 64, left a messy apartment, no clues at all as to family or friends, and only the rumor of a bank account. Paul Ozienkiewicz, on the other hand, did leave enough money for a funeral, but his relatives withdrew it instead.
“So many cases,” said Mark Roach, who helped whittle the list of indigent heat-wave dead down from 145. “They all blur together.”
Robert Yankovich, wheelchair-bound. Edward Hoffman, who liked to drink. Lisa Kimberley, William Reidsville, Lydia Payne, Ethel Young.
At the county’s contract cemetery, Homewood Memorial Gardens, they were laid side by side, each encased in a plain pine box with a numbered brass tag. The nails in the top had already left a crack in one casket. A sheet of white plastic extended from the side of another.
The service was so brief that two of the ministers invited to officiate got there late and missed it.
No one who admitted to knowing any of the deceased was there.
The heat victims were not even differentiated from the other July paupers; the more typical monthly caseload of 27 who died from other causes were placed in the trench as well. Together they filled what officials believe is the largest common grave in Cook County history.
Inside it, they have identities, for now. To each casket is affixed a yellow piece of paper on which a name is scrawled, but those will eventually decay.
There is some talk of a memorial marker, but no real plan at this point.
All that is certain is that the freshly filled grave, near a stand of elms, a dead oak and a cinder-block maintenance shed, will eventually be tilled and covered with grass.
“This is kind of the end of the operation for us,” said Mike Boehmer, who represented the medical examiner’s office at the funeral.
He was one of a handful of county officials who attended. The president of the Homewood Historical Society came as well. She wanted to gather details because the group re-enacts famous local funerals.
Three members of the clergy--one Catholic, one Presbyterian, one from the United Church of Christ--took turns speaking. Television camera crews recorded their liturgies.
A young woman standing apart from the ceremony sobbed under an oak. She told the cemetery’s general manager, Kevin Vaughan, that she didn’t know anyone in the grave and quickly left.
One other onlooker, Michael Petrarca, paced along the grave’s edge, counting caskets. His mother and father are buried in regular, marked plots elsewhere in the cemetery.
“I’m glad I came to witness this,” Petrarca said, somber in gray sweat pants and white T-shirt. He has lived all his 83 years in nearby Chicago Heights and can’t remember a heat as devastating as this summer’s. He had his wife and his air conditioning, though, to help him through.
As the small crowd drifted off, a few more visitors straggled over.
Father Robert Stepek and Father Michael Nallen, priests from a Catholic parish in this south suburb, stepped up to the line of pine boxes.
“Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name,” intoned one. Within minutes, with a sign of the cross and a splash of holy water, they were done.
They came unsolicited. “It seemed as though no one was around. No one was there to care,” Stepek said afterward. “We need to pray for those people. Their lives had worth.”
Added Nallen: “You always hear about mass burials around the world, in war and disaster. And this was home. This was in Chicago.”
The Rev. Arthur Taylor and the Rev. Jerome Davidson, each the pastor of a Southside Chicago Baptist congregation, were greeted apologetically by Vaughan, who explained that the time of the service had been moved up. It was all over. The two stood by one side of the grave in silent contemplation.
Minutes later, Rosemary Akins and Maureen Forte arrived. Akins, who works for a state senator--"But I’m not representing him. I’m here as a human being"--stared solemnly at the immense wooden row below.
Her brother, who died of AIDS at age 38, is also buried in Homewood Memorial, under a large stone cross within sight of the paupers’ trench.
“I took care of him,” Akins said. “I know how it is to be isolated and alone. People shied away from him.”
Tears mingled with sweat. “It’s overwhelming,” she said quietly. “It’s a heat holocaust.”
“Where are the neighbors?” burst out Forte, vice president of the Chicago Far South Suburban branch of the NAACP. “My mother’s 75. She has the latest of everything, so she had air conditioning. But she’s afraid and so were the people who didn’t have it.
“They didn’t want to go to any cooling center. They didn’t want to leave because if they had, someone would break into their homes and take everything.”
This was said over the drone of the front-end loader, pushing dirt over the coffins, sealing them into the grave.