As the director of Smith & Thomas Funeral Home in Maywood, Ilene Johnson has participated in countless funeral processions, and in every one she sees the same thing — motorists attempting to get past the long line of cars, so they don’t have to be held up.

“I see the expression on people’s faces,” she said with a laugh, describing the exasperated looks some give when they know they have to wait for the procession.

Some don’t wait, swerving around the line of vehicles or breaking into the procession, she said. It’s one of the most dangerous moments in a funeral for everyone involved. 

“I call it ‘Beat the hearse’,” she said. 

Johnson and others say the processions are made even more dangerous when they involve the death of a slain gang member. Law enforcement officials have dubbed them “rowdy processions” — many of which pass through Oak Park and Forest Park along Roosevelt Road and Jackson Boulevard — because of gang members blocking traffic, threatening other motorists, hanging out of car windows and, in some cases, firing weapons. 

Hillside police arrested four suspected gang members on Dec. 5, 2017, following a funeral at Oakridge Cemetery that passed through Oak Park. It was reported that the men discharged a firearm after Forest Park Police Chief Tom Aftanas redirected the procession to the Eisenhower Expressway as it headed from the West Side of Chicago to Hillside.

The frequency of such dangerous processions has increased over the last few years, prompting the Cook County Board of Commissioners to establish a task force to find ways to reduce the trend. Those in the so-called “death care” industry are also looking for solutions to keep their staff and patrons safe, but they worry that the effort could result in fines and increased regulatory burdens for funeral home operations.

Cathlene Johnson, Ilene’s sister, who serves as director of Johnson Funeral Home, 5838 W. Division St., about three blocks east of Oak Park, says characterizing the processions as “rowdy” has gotten the conversation off to a rough start. 

“We’re really sensitive about the language we’ve been hearing at these meetings. And the funerals being associated with violence,” she said, noting that those in the industry refer to them as “high-risk funerals.”

She told the Forest Park Review that the vast majority of funerals in and around Chicago are incident free, and it’s only a few people who are causing trouble. “Part of our role and responsibility as funeral directors is to bring that risk down,” she said.

Cathlene and Ilene Johnson attended a roundtable discussion in Forest Park on May 23, in preparation for the new task force, which has not yet held its first meeting.

Cook County Detective Sergeant Jason Moran told those at the roundtable that Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has tasked him with finding solutions to reduce the risk at gang-related processions. “The first thing we said is we cannot criminalize funerals and wakes, so that is something that is very important,” he said. 

Moran said the Glenn Oak-Oakridge Cemetery in Hillside is the “primary cemetery that we’re currently having problems with.” The county, he said, is attempting to deal with the problem immediately by establishing a police detail of two county officers every Friday and Saturday at the cemetery’s expense.

The sheriff’s department also is calling on funeral directors to self-report gang-related funeral processions. It’s been a challenge to understand the scope of the problem, he said, adding, “There isn’t necessarily a funeral-related or a death-care industry-related code that we can just stick into a computer and have it spit back out how many incidents we’ve had.” 

Brian Pickett, owner of Pickett Funeral Group, said he keeps law enforcement officials apprised of potential high-risk funerals. A police presence can help reduce the potential for violence, he said at the meeting. 

“Generally when I’m coming through Oak Park, I’ll call Oak Park, I’ll call Forest Park and let them know we’re coming through. Most of the time Chicago [police] talks to them, but other times they haven’t,” he said.

Pickett said he discourages families from directing the processions through areas where rival gang members might be present. Pickett said he recently had to tell a family that it wasn’t safe to run the procession through an area where their loved one was killed because of the potential for retaliation.

“He got killed over there and they wanted to go back through there because he was from there,” he recalled, telling those at the roundtable that he rerouted the procession because he wanted to keep his staff and attendees safe. 

“If they go back through there and they get to shooting, you’re gonna get hurt,” he told the family. “Now we’re dealing with another service, so it’s better to take the ride on out to the cemetery.”

Nhemya Ward, a funeral director and embalmer with the Johnson and Smith & Thomas funeral homes — all of which are owned by Mary Smith — said her operations also contact police when they know a high-risk funeral is expected.

Cathlene Johnson said funeral directors often know if the burial is gang-related because of information they collect in the obituary and from social media. They sometimes find gang-related tattoos on the body of the deceased, she said.

A gang shooting took place outside of the Johnson Funeral Home, 5838 W. Division St., on May 12, she noted. 

No one was injured in the shooting as family members and loved ones left the funeral home. Both Cathlene and Ilene were taken by surprise; it was the first shooting that’s ever taken place at the 10-year-old facility, they said. 

Cathlene said one of the problems with such processions is a lack of police presence and few consequences for dangerous behavior. She wants to warn those in the procession that their cars can be impounded for bad behavior, and she’s also encouraging police to enforce the law.

“We don’t want it to go too far, but we want to let them know this is serious,” she said. “There’s some decorum that’s required here, and if you can’t follow the guidelines or the procedures, there’s consequences that can happen.”

Ward said she’s concerned that law enforcement will take action against funeral homes by way of fines for dangerous funeral processions. 

“You’ve got to be careful with that because it starts off with fining the cemetery today, but then they’ll be looking to fine the funeral home, and then you’ll have a predicament where no funeral home would want a high-risk  funeral, so now you have a family that can’t … bury their loved ones,” she said.