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Tombstone Touring

Tombstone Touring
Chicago Tribune - Play
April 14, 2011 - Section 4, Page 1 and 8
Leslie Mann

"Dead men tell no tales but their tombstones do," wrote Tom Weil in "The Cemetery Book."

Asked why she describes herself as a "cemetery junkie," Rommy Lopat, of Lake Forest, said, "The history, landscaping, architecture, sculpture, genealogy — all of the above.

"They're nice places to visit. And you meet some very interesting people there."

Thanks to the Internet, Lopat is connected to people who share her sentiments. "I've taken dozens of pictures of gravestones and posted them online," she said. "But that's nothing. There are people out there who have posted thousands."

Tombstone touring dates to the 1800s, at least, as noted by Englishman Henry Arthur Bright in his diary after visiting a Boston cemetery: "Cemeteries are all the rage; people lounge in them and use them (as their tastes are inclined) for walking, making love, weeping, sentimentalizing, and every thing in short."

For many 20th century families, visiting the family graveyard after church on Sunday was a ritual. As urbanization scattered families, though, visits became rare or limited to burials.

Now, thanks to the Internet, new books and staged tours, tombstone touring enjoys a renaissance.

Taphophiles (cemetery fans) tell you that cemeteries are cross-sections of society where epitaphs are open history books. Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park, for example, has Native Americans, evangelist Billy Sunday, Ernest Hemingway's parents and labor activists.

"The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling now," reads one stone.

"Cemeteries are not sad places," said Diane Lanigan of Arlington Heights. "You learn a lot about a place by seeing its cemeteries. I've visited them in New Orleans, Portland (Maine), Hawaii and in England. My favorites, though, are the little country cemeteries like the one at Garfield Farm in LaFox. They're fascinating."

Not mention humorous. You don't have to look far to find memorials with moxie, from the unique "773-202-LUNA" on carpet store founder Salamon DeZara's stone to the much-copied "I Told You I Was Sick."

Also entertaining: organized cemetery tours, many of which are theatrical productions. The Algonquin Historic Commission's annual walk at the Algonquin Cemetery, for example, features actors who portray some of the graveyard's more colorful residents.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation hosts frequent tours at better-known cemeteries. "People come from all over the U.S. to see them," said Lanigan, a volunteer docent at Graceland Cemetery.

Self-touring is OK at most cemeteries. Find books or online maps to guide you through the larger ones. "A Walk Through Graceland Cemetery" by Barbara Lanctot, for example, tells you where to find its famous occupants, including Marshall Field and Daniel Burnham.

Some historic cemeteries, including Chicago's Rosehill Cemetery, offer maps on site. Rosehill's map points visitors to its Civil War heroes and to the 72-foot-high obelisk marking the grave of two-term Chicago mayor "Long" John Wentworth.

To find the area's most haunted cemetery, go to Bachelors Grove Cemetery in Midlothian, wrote Troy Taylor in "Weird Illinois." Visitors have reported glowing balls of light and monklike ghosts.

Four-legged Americans' cemeteries are worth touring too. The Bideawee Memorial Park in Wantagh, N.Y., is home to Richard Nixon's dog Checkers. The Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park includes Topper, the horse of actor William Boyd, who portrayed cowboy Hopalong Cassidy, and Pete the Pup of "Little Rascals" fame. The Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in New York, with about 70,000 underground residents, claims to be the "first and most prestigious" of the lot.

Many tombstone tourists, including Lopat, got started by searching for their relatives' gravestones. These provide genealogical data such as birth/death dates and relations, plus miscellanea such as where people were baptized.

"Don't be surprised if you find relatives you didn't know about, especially children," said Megan Smolenyak, New Jersey-based genealogist and author of "Who Do You Think You Are? The Essential Guide to Tracing Your Family History." "But don't have 21st century expectations about accuracy. Dates and spellings are often wrong. And people translated names differently when they immigrated here."

If the family was poor, they might not have been able to afford headstones, added Smolenyak, who found that true when she researched Michelle Obama's ancestors.
To find family grave sites at unstaffed cemeteries, Smolenyak suggested you check county, church and Internet records, and read obituaries in newspapers at library archives.
Historical societies have armies of volunteers who record local cemetery records. An Eagle Scout in Antioch, for example, recently photographed local headstones for the Lakes Region Historical Society.

"The old cemeteries, especially, have gravestones that tell so much more about the people than just names and dates," said Lanigan. "They have romantic poems, lavish descriptions, depictions of their favorite places. Reading those old gravestones, we learn a lot more about those people than our relatives will learn about us when they read ours a hundred years from now."

If you make plans to visit a cemetery, keep in mind some guidelines.

"Visit cemeteries when there are no interments, which is typically Sundays," said Vickie Hand, spokeswoman for the Illinois Cemetery & Funeral Home Association. "Don't let the kids climb on gravestones. Be careful of old ones with weak foundations; they do fall over. In general, don't do what you wouldn't want done to your family's gravestones."

Hand said her organization does not condone gravestone rubbings. Some cemeteries prohibit photos.

"Make a donation or offer to plant a tree," Lopat suggested. "Many of the old cemeteries are run by nonprofits that appreciate the help. These are lovely places. Let's look after them."