On a recent warm, sunny day at Oak Lawn Cemetery, those buried in the ground rested in peace.
Two mourners moved among the rows of graves, stopping to stand quietly in the company of their departed loved ones, laying a flower here, a rock there, or simply stopping with their heads bowed, sinking into a combination of memory, grief and hopefully comfort.
That tranquility, however, isn’t always the case in Oak Lawn, where authorities say a “recent increase in gang activity” following multiple graveside vandalisms, including a stolen headstone. The authorities and, more directly, the cemetery management, are now wondering how to put an end to this – without themselves cutting off people who want to visit their loved ones.
Oak Lawn Cemetery, a relatively small graveyard on Cummins Highway at the confluence of Hyde Park, Roslindale and Mattapan, made headlines when the Herald reported that feuding gangs were vandalizing headstones – and even stealing one .
Here’s how the incidents at the cemetery unfolded, according to police reports backed up by cemetery staff and community sources.
On March 27 at around 11 p.m., someone – community sources say gang-affiliated people from the former Bromley Heath projects in Jamaica Plain – knocked over the headstones of D’Andre King-Settles, Michael I. Ross and John P. Cesar – all the people who had been shot and King-Settles before he was even 18. Cops wrote in a report that three people knocked over the three headstones before they finally left.
Then came retaliation two days later, when, according to community sources, people affiliated with the Projects Mission gang on Annunciation Road behind police headquarters came and knocked over the headstone of Gerrod Brown Jr., who was shot when he was only of age. 16. They then picked up the headstone, threw it in the trunk of a car and drove it back to Annunciation Road, where cops found it shortly after she disappeared.
The theft of the headstone and its brief residence on Annunciation Road made the rounds on social media, further stoking tensions between the gangs.
Three people are charged with the theft of the headstone – young men who cops say wore their court-mandated anklets on previous charges as they vandalized the cemetery.
Then, in the middle of the afternoon of April 21, plainclothes police from the Youth Violence Strike Force – the gang unit – invaded the cemetery, closing in on a man they said had been seen shortly before with a gun. After a series of pats and minor scuffles, according to the police report, officers found four firearms, two on the rear passengers and two in the car’s glove compartment. Weapons charges were brought against the men, who police say possessed the weapons illegally.
Cemetery superintendent Todd Burne, walking through the cemetery with the Herald, could only shake his head.
“They don’t really have any respect for the people here,” Burne said.
He said he was evaluating safety options, such as closing doors at specific times and stricter enforcement of noise rules, although he did not want to stop people from entering and being respectful, so there is a balance. He doesn’t want to tell the “hundreds of moms and dads,” many workers of color in surrounding neighborhoods that they can’t come and cry whenever they want.
As Burne spoke and walked, a funeral procession passed, bringing another body to its final resting place amid the shadow-dappled lands.
If you spend enough time here, a disturbing reality begins to set in: many of the birthdates on the headstones are from the past two decades – children born in the 1990s, 2000s and even 2010s. Young faces smile at from images inlaid on the stones, indicating places where young bodies lie in repose.
It’s not universally true, but too many of these young people have died of violence – often at the hands of others of the same age.
That’s at least part of the reason there are periodic issues here, Burne said. Some of them are almost accidental – the children of life come to remember friends and loved ones, maybe drink, as evidenced by the pinch bottles that Burne often has to clean, and run into a rival crew. whose initial intentions at the cemetery were equally innocuous. Then the rubbing can begin.
After all, Burne said, he doesn’t really think there’s been such a big increase overall – although grave vandalism is new and shocking – “It’s just that they’re getting caught more, maybe.”
The walk around the cemetery passes some of the headstones. King-Settles is back, as are Ross and Cesar. Cops clung to Brown after picking him up, leaving a gap in the row of headstones like a missing tooth.
Burne shook his head again and didn’t ask anyone in particular, “Why can’t you just let them rest in peace?”