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Walking Among The Dead

Walking Among The Dead
Daily Southtown - Chicago, IL USA
October 22, 2006
Steve Metsch - Staff Writer

Looking for a peaceful place to take a stroll, eat lunch, or just enjoy nature's beauty?

How about a cemetery?

Yes, a cemetery. They're quiet, full of beautiful scenery and can even be quite educational, Paula Everett says.

Everett knows a little about cemeteries. Not only is she president of Mount Greenwood Cemetery, a family-owned cemetery on Chicago's Southwest Side, but she's been visiting other cemeteries in the area for years.

Mount Greenwood Cemetery, 2900 W. 111th St., is a "Victorian cemetery" designed to make you feel as though you're in a park.

"That's how cemeteries started, a place for people to go for peace and rest. The street car from the city used to stop right here," Everett said, pointing to 111th Street.

Picnic lunches near tombstones are rare, but it's not unusual for people to take a leisurely stroll through a local cemetery.

"We get them now and then," Everett said. "The Oak Lawn Park District has done tours here, and we've had our own tours."

Resurrection, Holy Sepulchre, St. James at the Sag, Bachelors Grove, and Oak Woods are rich in history and legend. Chances are you've heard of Resurrection Mary and strange happenings at Bachelors Grove, but this isn't about whistling past graveyards. It's about their beauty.

Visit www.graveyards.com for a list of every cemetery in the state of Illinois, with directions and the occasional photo.

Moline's Minda Powers-Douglas, author of "Cemetery Walk, has wandered among the dead for years.

"Cemeteries are something I've been fascinated with since I was a kid," she said. "I look around and see the beauty of them."

John Martine, of Maywood, who takes freelance photos in cemeteries, shares that enthusiasm.

"I find them relaxing, calming," he said.

If you see a cemetery that catches your eye, feel free to drive in, park, and take a stroll. Cemetery officials we contacted said they have no problems with people visiting during business hours.

But don't visit after dark, said Troy Taylor, of Decatur.

Taylor, who has written 42 books about allegedly haunted places throughout the Midwest, said most cemeteries don't like discussing ghost stories because of the attention they bring.

"Ghost tours can lead to break-ins, and then you have these idiots who tip over tombstones," he said.

Taylor prefers the history angle.

St. James at the Sag, for example, is home to men who built area canals.

"I enjoy reading the inscriptions and the artwork is amazing, especially from the late 1800s until the Great Depression," Taylor said.Graceland Cemetery, located at Clark Street and Irving Park Road, is perhaps Chicago's most famous cemetery.

It offers free maps, and many famous Chicagoans -- George Pullman, Daniel Burnham and Marshall Field, to name a few -- are buried there in stately tombs.

"The Victorians celebrated death and spent a lot of money on mausoleums and elaborate tombstones. The artwork, skill and craftsmanship is impressive. Then the Depression came along and the money wasn't there," Taylor said.

Taylor disdains flat tombstones that have been popular for about 50 years. Yes, they are easier on groundskeepers, but can't compare with towering obelisks, beautifully-carved angels, huge granite crosses or family mausoleums.

Such mausoleums dot the 79 acres of Mount Greenwood Cemetery, which, despite opening in 1879, still has about 20 percent of its land open for future interments.

Strolling with Everett on a rainy October morning, it's easy to feel you're far from the city as she points to various sites, including two stones whose names and dates faded years ago.

"These are marble. See, you can't read them. They don't wear well. At one time, they did look beautiful," she said.

Distinctive white bronze covers one large monument. Another once featured the long-gone statue of a Boy Scout over the grave of 16-year-old lad who died from pneumonia. All that remains are the statue's shoes.

Cemeteries often devote large sections to groups like veterans or children.

"People did that because they couldn't' afford a family plot, and discounts were offered," Taylor said. "I know that sounds terrible, but it was cheaper to bury a child in the children's plot. I guess that one way to look at it is they were with all the other kids."

Or the gangsters with the gangsters, as is the case at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside.

"It's so cool, if you are interested in Chicago gangland history, because they're all there -- Frank Nitti, Al Capone -- within spitting distance of each other," Taylor said. "There's a lot of great artwork there, too, scattered throughout the cemetery, most of it by Italian craftsman."

Martine noted Capone's original grave was in Mount Olivet Cemetery on 111th Street. That's where you'll find the O'Leary family. Yes, that O'Leary family.

Martine is a fan of Oak Woods Cemetery, where Chicago Mayor Harold Washington rests in a stately mausoleum. There's also a monument for 6,000 Confederate soldiers who died at a prisoner of war camp in Chicago. Each Rebel soldier is named, but eight Union guards are unknown.

"From what I've heard, they got sick soon after they arrived and nobody bothered to get their names down," Martine said.

Powers-Douglas thinks a connection is made with the dead when we read their tombstones.

"Even if you haven't met them before, and have no idea who they were, the fact is that you are in there, acknowledging that they did have lives. We can imagine what their lives might have been like."

"How sad would it be if we died and were then just forgotten. Say you live to be 98, and you outlive your family and friends. Then, nobody shows up and you are forgotten. I think that's a scary feeling for a lot of people, one they don't want to think about too much. That's why some people think cemeteries are creepy," Powers-Douglas said.

Powers-Douglas once convinced a skeptical co-worker they should eat lunch hour in a cemetery.

"We grabbed our sandwiches, spread out a blanket on the law and enjoyed the peace and quiet and beauty. The next day, she asked when we were going to do that again," she said. "Give it a try. You won't experience any other place like it."

Steve Metsch may be reached at smetsch@dailysouthtown.com or (708) 633-5996

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