To begin with, the cemetery occupied too much space. Chicago’s population was booming, and densely packed citizens of the city couldn’t bear to see that much land be wasted on the dead.
There were also complaints about the cemetery grounds, which were ill-maintained, and had a tarnished history — dead animals and human waste were notoriously dumped at the north end of the cemetery. Neighborhood residents were constantly complaining of noxious odors.
Crisis came in the form of research conducted by a man named John H. Rauch. In 1866, Dr. Rauch published his findings in a paper which forced the city to confront an alarming fact: the noxious odors that permeated the neighborhood in the summer weren’t coming from either the feces or the animals — they were coming from the decomposing human bodies themselves.
It turned out that the ground itself wasn’t suited for the dead. The upper strata of the ground was sand and clay through which water would easily travel. Hence, all year long, water was traveling down to the graves, mixing with the corpses, then rising to the surface to spread disease and harmful, toxic fumes.
Not only that, but the ground was also flat. Lacking any natural drainage path, the water would drain out to the closest water source: in this case, Lake Michigan. Remember that at this time Lake Michigan was the primary source of drinking water for the city.
The result was outrage. One year later, Rauch became Sanitary Superintendent for the city, and city workers began to dig up bone and corpse alike for re-interment at Graceland Cemetery.
The council ruled the cemetery grounds would be re-appropriated as a city park. Over the next five years, construction of the new park began even as the bodies were still being removed. The final count of relocated bodies was over 14,000. It was decided that the park would be named for the 16th President of the United States, assassinated only a few years earlier. And to this day, his bronze statue still stands to welcome the unsuspecting to Lincoln Park.
Let us consider the story of City Cemetery as a kind of metaphor for the larger story of mankind, cities, and death.
Why do people gather in cities? According to sociologist Joel Kotkin, for three reasons: for wealth, for safety, and for worship.
Like so many American cities, Chicago’s population exploded with the promise of wealth, with safety running at best a distant second. But, Kotkin argues, no one ignores the reality of safety forever. Eat caviar, go to the opera, make all the money you like — the minute you think living in the city will actually kill you, you’ll run screaming for the hills (or fields, if you live in the midwest).
So of course Chicagoans wanted to push their cemetery to the outskirts of the city. Death was then, as now, always just around the corner. Disease ran rampant in the back-of-the-yards. Crooks and murderers stalked the streets. Rich, poor, citizen, immigrant — no one was immune. Chicago was and is a dangerous city.
But no one wants to be reminded of that fact. In fact, most of us spend much time and energy on convincing ourself that the opposite is true: that our neighborhoods are, in fact, safe, that the police can and are doing their jobs.
When headlines inform us that this is not the case, that someone was killed or beaten in our backyard, that law enforcement once again failed, we, predictably, act surprised and outraged. Why? Because we cannot tolerate anything that would threaten our illusion of safety.
And so, the dead are moved to Graceland, and City Cemetery becomes Lincoln Park. And so, the young urbanite changes neighborhoods each year, seeking a freedom that cannot be found.
• • •
Our liberal city enters into conflict with itself in it’s espousing of safety in community.
We believe community to hold greater wisdom and understanding than the individual, that the woes of the world are just misunderstanding writ large.
Hence, we attribute murder to lack of education, and lack of education to poverty, and poverty to lack of the proper government aid. Murder, then, is due to the absence of community, for where there is community (here in the form of redistribution of wealth and equal opportunity), such things do not exist.
But the actual fact of our community (Chicago) shows the error of this logic, in that whatever made the criminal resort to murder seems also to make the politician resort to graft, and the northside bourgeoisie to apathy. Community has enabled the murder, rather than preventing it.
Safety in numbers is no help when the numbers themselves are unsafe. It may take a village to raise a child, but if the village happens to be full of felons and gangsters, a better bet may be getting the hell out of town.
• • •
Recently, to save money, my family moved from Lincoln Park to Rogers Park, a neighborhood at the far north end of the city. Our neighbors were incredulous. They asked if we’d ever been to Roger’s Park. “It’s not safe,” they warned, reminding us that we had children (as apparently this had escaped our notice).
The conflict between ideology and practice in our “City That Works” has been well documented elsewhere, and the phenomenon of “Lakefront Liberalism” continues to this day. For proof, those of us that live in the North Side need only ask why we do not move tomorrow to Englewood, Austin, or West Garfield Park?
Community. Unity. With words the urbanite champions human potential, but with his hands he locks the doors.
Understanding. Tolerance. Yes, but when was the last time you stopped the young latino on the street to clear up your misunderstanding about the tattoos on his face?
And why not move to the West Side? Three bedroom apartments are going for $850 in West Garfield Park.
The truth is we understand all too well. Our rhetoric of community falls apart in practice. It functions, then, simply as an avoidance mechanism. Like the demand that the unsightly City Cemetery be relocated, so we also demand that the ugly facts of sin and death be removed from our philosophy and vision, espousing community, but in practice avoiding it.
The reason is this: no matter our rhetoric, we know community can provide no real protection against enemy death. Never has the gathering together of humanity been able to stop it, or even slow it down. Indeed, the reality is quite the opposite.
The Bible’s first mention of a city is found in the book of Genesis, chapter four:
Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. When he built a city, he called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch.
Possible syntheses of this account and known history being too large to consider here, let us instead observe the narrative presented in these scriptures.
Directly following this verse is a biblical account of the emergence of culture.
To Enoch was born Irad, and Irad fathered Mehujael, and Mehujael fathered Methushael, and Methushael fathered Lamech. And Lamech took two wives. The name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock. His brother's name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe. Zillah also bore Tubal-cain; he was the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron. The sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.
And, following that, we find this rather strange oath:
Lamech said to his wives:
“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.
If Cain's revenge is sevenfold,
then Lamech's is seventy-sevenfold.”
The phrase “Cain’s revenge” here is of interest. Lamech is referring to the events that happened earlier in chapter four. Recall the events:
Cain and Abel present offerings to the Lord. The Lord likes Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s. Cain becomes jealous and angry. The Lord pleads with him to turn from the sin in his heart. Cain ignores this plea, and murders his brother.
The Lord tells Cain,
“You are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”
To which Cain replies,
“My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”
And the Lord says,
“Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.”
This, then is the “Cain’s Vengeance” to which Lamech refers, but it isn’t Cain’s. It’s the Lord’s.
And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
Here, then, is the story of the first city.
Mankind is expelled from Eden. The first parents, Adam and Eve, bear the knowledge that one day they will die, and indeed prove themselves unable to stop death in their own house.
Cain, the first murderer, is told he must wander, that the ground stained with his brother’s blood will not yield fruit for him. This leads Cain to despair, for not only will his life be full of hardship, but also as a wanderer he will be in constant danger of being murdered himself.
So, he builds a city. Coincidence? Is it for no reason that the children of the first murderer are credited with the first significant semitic cultural and technological advances?
No. It seems human city-building and community was at the outset concerned with strength in numbers, that we humans began to convince ourselves from our first moments after the fall that community was our answer to murder and starvation.
“Whoever finds me will kill me!” Cain laments.
“Not so!” promises the Lord, who at all times has power over life and death.
But to this day we live in cities founded as rejection of that promise.
What about the suburbs?
A few months ago, my wife and children were on an errand to the suburbs of Chicago. Surveying the sprawling parking lots, the strip-malls arrayed in terrifying uniformity, the busses that came — What’s this? Every half an hour? — my daughter Madelyn began to fear for her life.
“Mom,” she intoned, “I don’t like the suburbs. I just don’t feel safe!”
• • •
Imagine you’re a veteran finally returning home from World War II. You’ve spent the last ten or fifteen years in combat, face to face with the horror and atrocity of death and murder. At last, you return to your country.
How do you desire to live out your days? In peace. In quiet. In any manner that will help you forget what you’ve seen.
According to sociologists and historians, the explosive growth of the suburbs in the 1950’s happened exactly for this reason. With the commoditization of the automobile and the newly completed United States Freeway System, for the first time it became possible to live in a different place than one worked.
The advent of purely residential areas seemed to those who sought escape from the hustle and hazards of industry and commerce a ray of hope in an unbearably dark world.
So began the phenomenon known as “White Flight,” in which the wealthy middle class fled to the suburbs to escape death just as poor blacks were relocating into urban areas from the south for precisely the same reasons.
In the twenty-first centry, we witness the reversal of White Flight in the phenomenon known as “Gentrification.” In “Gentrification” whites return to the neighborhoods their grandparents abandoned, fleeing the cultural decay that resulted from the strict division of “home life” from “work life.”
Surely, it must be a strange thing for the aged Puerto Ricans in Humbolt Park to witness our grave hipster outrage when the death count takes the headline of the Red Eye next to Kanye West. (Wait. You’re upset? Where have you been the last fifty years?)
But all this merely serves to illustrate the depth of our self-delusion: for each of us will be, in just a short time, just as dead as those red dots that stain the map of our city, having died a death just as final, and whether we shall live five years or fifty from this moment, no amount of relocating or lobbying or “getting away from it all” will change the horror of that end.
Is that not outrageous? Why do we argue about city or suburb, as though either of them offered more protection? We are as Lamech, making vows we cannot fulfill, asserting control over that which we are helpless to prevent, claiming power divine when it is obvious to the most casual observer we have none.
Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help
and rely on horses,
So says the Lord. And to horses, we might add fences, and blinking blue lights, and “urban renewal” projects, and all other efforts to keep death in its place.
Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help
and rely on horses,
who trust in chariots because they are many
and in horsemen because they are very strong,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel
or consult the LORD!
Woe to us, when the moment finds us and we realize all our panic-induced relocation was vanity. Indeed, more than vanity, for if true protection can only be found in God, and we by our words and actions lead our neighbors and children away from it, is not their deception upon our heads?
What else are we doing with our dogged political affiliations? What else are we doing when we espouse this or that “safe” neighborhood or lifestyle?
We are leading them further into delusion.
We have not one of us yet known Zion. Until that day, all we know are the cities of Cain, built by those with murder in their hearts from fear of murder.
Community, government, understanding, tolerance, none of these shall save us from death, and all who claim otherwise lead men to wander with Cain away from real protection, the presence of The Lord.
“But, then,” one wonders, “how are we to live?”
It’s a fair question. How shall we spend these fleeting years, if not planting trees on the cemetery grounds, trying to ignore the problem within, banding together against our brother’s murderous rage?
Consider Jesus’ words to his disciples:
Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?
It is a profound statement. But Jesus is no fatalist. Later, he says,
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.
“Yes, but what of Cain?” we ask.
And the blood of Jesus staining the ground, spilled by his brothers, making ransom and resurrection for all who believe answers, “What of him?”
Do you trust that blood or don’t you? If you do, then why are you ever turning to Cain, to Enoch, to Lamech, to chariots and horses and the City Council for help? To new technologies and sanitized neighborhoods and whichever residence will offer a life most trouble-free?
Are we not citizens of a kingdom without end? Why these lives enslaved to fear? Why this crossing of the street when the victim of violence cries out? Priest, Levite, do you still fear the band of thieves?
Our Lord did not. Jesus Christ was not afraid to enter Enoch, our proud, hopeless city of death. He was betrayed and hounded by his brothers, but looked to no man for deliverance.
O, his blood cries out from the ground! By it we are saved.
Chicago son and Pulitzer Prize winning poet Carl Sandburg offers us this wisdom:
Now the stone house on the lake front is finished and the workmen are beginning the fence.
The palings are made of iron bars with steel points that can stab the life out of any man who falls on them.
As a fence, it is a masterpiece, and will shut off the rabble and all vagabonds and hungry men and all wandering children looking for a place to play.
Passing through the bars and over the steel points will go nothing except Death and the Rain and To-morrow.
• • •
In 1998, the Chicago Historical Society decided to expand it’s parking facility on Clark and LaSalle. A few society members were chatting outside the construction zone when a foreman approached with a troubled look on his face.
It turned out one of the backhoes had hit something solid under the earth. It was a coffin. President and Senior Archaeologist David Keene moved in to get a closer look.
In the commotion, the spot the foreman said held a coffin had been covered back over with dirt. David began brushing the dirt away.
“All of the sudden, I began to uncover what appeared to be a foot, and toes.”
As it turned out, the disturbed coffin was made of iron, so the body inside had been mostly preserved all these years.
It’s a well established fact that many bodies and bones are still buried beneath our fair Lincoln Park. Recently, another was found when the farm was built at the Lincoln Park Zoo.
As it turns out, many graves were simply abandoned after construction on the park began. A good number of them were unclaimed — marked by simple headstones, until the headstones themselves were deemed unsightly and simply removed.
But the terror and evidence of death and dying cannot be dealt with so easily.
• • •
O, let my grave be of twisted iron and chain! Let the stench of my rotting flesh fill the air in contempt of Lamech, poison the water in the city of Enoch until the citizens are brought to despair of parks and fences and beautification!
O, let the truth, the terrible end of each life be known, bones hidden beneath green lawns and many-colored gardens!
Let all men cry out to God in their anguish, for he offers his mark freely! Let them receive it, and so walk in freedom on the untamed earth, till the Lord in sevenfold fury comes to deliver them forever.
QUESTIONS FOR GOSPEL COMMUNITIES
All Gospel Communities currently discussing basic Christian doctrine through Two Cities.
QUESTIONS FOR CORDS
1. How much hope do you place in the human capacity for self-protection? (through political ideologies, etc.)
2. Is your desire for safety keeping you from obedience to God’s commands (i.e., mercy to the poor, calling, etc.)
3. Spend some time in prayer asking God to reveal the extent of Christ’s victory over death to your Cord, so that you can be free from paralyzing fears and false hopes.
 See, for instance, Gary Rivlin’s fascinating “Fire on the Prairie” which documents the fear-based political economy of the mayoral race of 1983.
 The Liberalism of Chicago’s wealthy North Side, which is high on rhetoric and low on practice.
 Isaiah 31:1
 Isaiah 31:1
 Matthew 6:27