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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Cara Anthony | KHN

In downstate town, when violence claims young lives, these men prepare the graves

More than 30 years ago, Johnnie Haire, the grounds supervisor at Sunset Gardens of Memory cemetery in downstate Millstadt, set up a birdbath and purchased angel figurines for a special area of the cemetery for deceased children, called Baby Land. He carefully painted each angel a hue of brown. He says he wanted the angels to be Black, like many of the children laid to rest there. (Cara Anthony / KHN)

MILLSTADT, Ill. — It was a late Friday afternoon when a group of men approached a tiny, pink casket. One wiped his brow. Another stepped away to smoke a cigarette. Then, with calloused hands, they gently lowered the child’s body into the ground.

Earlier that day, the groundskeepers at Sunset Gardens of Memory had dug the small grave on a hill in a special section of the cemetery in a southern Illinois community across the river from St. Louis. It was for a 3-year-old girl killed by a stray bullet.

“It can be stressful sometimes,” says Jasper Belt, 26, one of the workers. “We have to use little shovels.”

More than 30 years ago, Johnnie Haire and the other groundskeepers built a garden site just for children. They added a birdbath and bought angel figurines, carefully painting each one a hue of brown. Haire wanted the angels to be Black, like many of the children laid to rest there.

“This is ‘Baby Land,’ ” says Haire, 67, Sunset Gardens’ grounds supervisor, gesturing across the area. “This is where a lot of babies are buried.”

Cemeteries like this one have long honored those who die too young. Such special burial sites can be found in downstate Quincy, Owensboro, Kentucky, and Gainesville, Florida, among other places. They are for stillborn children and those who died of disease or accidents.

Today, though, a modern epidemic fills more of these graves than anything else. Across the United States, firearms-related injuries were the leading cause of death for children in 2020, ahead of motor vehicle crashes, according to research from the University of Michigan.

Digging graves for a living wasn’t among the career aspirations of Johnnie Haire (left) or his colleague William Belt Sr. But that’s exactly what they’ve done for 43 years at Sunset Gardens of Memory cemetery in downstate Millstadt. (Cara Anthony / KHN)

The men at Sunset Gardens are collecting data in their own way. In 2019, Haire broke ground on a new section of the cemetery where teenagers and young adults are buried, including those killed by COVID-19 and many who were victims of violence. It’s called the Garden of Grace. And it already has been used more than anyone would like.

“One time, it was just every weekend, just a steady flow,” Haire says. “This one getting killed over here. This one getting killed over there. They fighting against each other, some rival gangs or whatever they were. So we had a lot. A lot of that.”

And 2021 was especially deadly nationwide: More than 47,000 people of all ages died from gunshot injuries, the highest U.S. toll since the early 1990s, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This past year wasn’t as deadly nationally, though the tally is still being finalized.

(Cara Anthony / KHN)
(Cara Anthony / KHN)

The groundskeepers at Sunset Gardens have learned to watch their step in Baby Land for grieving parents who drop off toys, candy, and balloons for their deceased children. 

“They just do things so differently in grief,” says Jocelyn Belt, 35, whose father William Belt Sr., 66, has worked at the cemetery since before she was born and whoser brother and cousin work there, too.

The groundskeepers work quietly as families grieve. William Belt Jr., 44, says he doesn’t pry even if he knows the family and would like to know how they’re doing.

“That’s what you learn not to do,” he says. “We let them come to us.”

But often, the men say, they are anonymous amid the rituals of grief. William Belt Jr. says that, in his off hours around town, he sometimes runs into people who attended the burials, and they’ll recognize him.

“They don’t know my name,” he says. “They’ll be, like, ‘Gravedigger, you buried my mom. Man, thanks.’ ”

These men understand the complicated pain of losing loved ones. In the past year alone, the Belt family has experienced three deaths, including a relative who was shot.

And, on New Year’s Eve, William Belt Jr. was shot while sitting in his truck outside a gas station convenience store.

“Nobody’s exempt,” he says as he recovers at home. “It could have been an old lady going to get some cornmeal or something like that from that store and could have got caught right in the crossfire.”

His family is thankful he’s OK. But he’s still grappling with his close call.

“I would have probably been overtime for some of my coworkers,” Bell says. “That’s something to think about. And then they wouldn’t been able to go to my funeral ’cause they got to bury me.”

William Belt Sr. says he froze when his son was shot. And he couldn’t hold back his emotions when he buried his brother and niece less than a month apart. Many of their relatives are buried at Sunset Gardens — and they dug their graves.

“I weep,” he says. “Big difference between crying and weeping. Weeping, I’m closer to God.”

Their job is physical, emotional work done in all seasons, all weather. Injuries happen sometimes. Heartbreak is everywhere.

To hold their own hearts together, the groundskeepers often decompress as they eat lunch in a shed near the cemetery’s front office, trading stories, sitting in front of a wood-burning stove to keep warm during winter. They find joy where they can. The Belts like to fish. And the elder Belt occasionally sings the blues to soothe his soul. Parker, a long-haired cat, provides them company, too — and enjoys investigating the men’s lunches.

They laugh when they can. William Belt Sr. still remembers his first year on the job. He wanted to be respectful even though his clients were deceased.

“ ‘Excuse me, coming through,’ ” Belt recalls saying as he walked through the cemetery. “Then, I got myself together.”

Digging graves for a living wasn’t on Belt’s hoped-for career list. Nor was it for his friend Haire. But that’s what the two men have done for 43 years, prepare the graves for those who lived long, full lives and also for those whose young lives were cut short. They see themselves as caretakers.

“That’s the proper name for it,” Haire says.

Standing amid the graves, he points out that the Baby Land sign welcoming mourners is worn, the paint on the angels on it peeling, too.

“It needs touching up over there,” Haire says. “But I’ve been busy.”

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