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When gun violence ends young lives, these men prepare the graves


There have been more than 50 mass shootings in the U.S. so far this year. CDC data from recent years shows the growing number of gun-related deaths. Cara Anthony of Kaiser Health News went to a cemetery in southern Illinois. There, groundskeepers work in the shadows of the gun violence epidemic, burying victims, many of them children.

CARA ANTHONY, BYLINE: A cemetery sitting high up on a hill is called Sunset Gardens of Memory. In one corner, everything is smaller. Picture gravestones the size of a license plate. The cemetery workers use little shovels when it's time to dig a new grave.

JOHNNIE HAIRE: We're in Baby Land. This is where a lot of babies are buried.

ANTHONY: That's Johnnie Haire, grounds supervisor here in Millstadt, across the river from St. Louis. His shift starts just after sunrise. And he doesn't stop moving until sunset.

How long have you been working here?

HAIRE: Oh, 43 years. I just can't leave.

ANTHONY: Haire says he's more than a groundskeeper, he's a caretaker. When a 3-year-old girl was shot and killed in the fall of 2021, Haire made sure she was buried in Baby Land. Haire started adding small touches to this part of the cemetery more than 30 years ago to make it feel special. He built a birdbath and brought in angel statues that he painted by hand.

HAIRE: I just wanted to put some color in the angels and the babies.

ANTHONY: The red on their clothes, the brown skin, the black hair, that's all you?

HAIRE: That's my doing there (laughter).

ANTHONY: Another longtime groundskeeper, William Belt Sr., says it was awkward to walk by the gravestones without acknowledging them, so he greeted each one.

What would you say?

WILLIAM BELT SR: Excuse me. Coming through. Then I got myself together. It was new to me.

ANTHONY: The entire cemetery is huge, 30 acres.

JOCELYN BELT: I've been walking this hill my whole life, so it doesn't seem very big.

ANTHONY: That's William's daughter, Jocelyn Belt. Not just her dad, but her brother and cousin are caretakers here, too. In Baby Land, parents leave dolls, little race cars and other toys scattered on the ground.

BELT: They just do things so differently in how they grieve and how they process the loss, respect their memory and all that.

ANTHONY: Gun violence is the No. 1 cause of death for kids in the U.S. When the caretakers dig a grave, they feel that trend in their hands. These men collect data in their own way.

BELT: They don't necessarily know exactly what happened. They'll always know that something isn't right health wise, medically wise. They'll know when the gun numbers are up because they'll get a lot of shooting victims and things like that.

ANTHONY: The caretakers have faced two epidemics, COVID and guns. They did their best to keep up. Johnnie Haire says many of the burials were for teens and young people who died from gunshot injuries.

HAIRE: One time, it was just every weekend. It was just a steady flow, you know? This one getting killed over here. This one getting killed over there. They fighting against each other, some rival gangs, whatever they were.

ANTHONY: William Belt Jr., Jocelyn's brother, is also a caretaker. He says the work can take a toll, especially as a father.

WILLIAM BELT JR: When it's a kid and they've lived a life, and then you see other kids out - like, they might have been their friends from daycare or school or something - and they grieving, that's just sad

ANTHONY: But there's little time to dwell on emotion as the men do their work. Supervisor Johnnie Haire says there's always plenty to do.

HAIRE: It's a job that got to be done. In this cemetery, there's nobody else to do it (laughter). You just got to keep it together.

ANTHONY: I'm Cara Anthony in Millstadt, Ill.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOW MEADOW'S "QUINTANA (SOLO PIANO)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cara Anthony