It is tempting to pick up Graveyards of Chicago and begin leafing through the pages from one graveyard to another. The book’s encyclopedic format makes it easy to flip from index to graveyard in search of, say, where your grandparents are buried or the resting places of sports legends like Jesse Owens and Harry Caray.
In this book, readers can discover where key moments in Chicago history are preserved through the dead left behind, such as the Haymarket Riots and Our Lady of Angels fire. They also can find out where to pay respects to McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, whose tombstone reads, “His mojo is gone—the Master has won.”
But before hopping straight to the graveyard entries, the reader should take the time to read the authors’ introductions. They set the tone and explain the reason for their work. As taphophiles—people who study cemeteries—Hucke and Bielski have compiled a broad study of the area’s burial grounds, and they note they are working against the clock. Hucke writes that,
“Though caretakers do what they can to slow the process, our cemeteries are crumbling. Those who love places of art, history, and beauty must do what we can to document what is there, before it is lost forever.”
Bielski, author of books such as Creepy Chicago and the Chicago Haunts series, writes about what she sees as the living’s responsibility to care for the dead:
Throughout the book are anecdotes and historical context—some quirky, some heartbreaking—written in a clear style. The book is divided geographically, with graveyards from the city and the suburbs. It also includes entries about two pet cemeteries, where pet owners have memorialized their dogs and cats with the kind of care many show for their human loved ones.
In his introduction, Hucke recalls his early days since moving to Chicago, reading supernatural stories on a Usenet online forum (precursor to modern websites), which led him to the famed Bachelors Grove cemetery. He developed the site graveyards.com prior to teaming up with Bielski to write the first edition of Chicago Graveyards, published in 1999.
Bielski, one of the foremost authorities on Chicago ghost lore and cemeteries, likewise shares her own feelings about how the living care for the dead. Regardless of whether the reader shares her belief in the paranormal, it is easy to appreciate the passion she feels for her work. She notes some of the recent discoveries of cemeteries that have been criminally mishandled, such as Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, where cemetery workers resold plots and dumped the previously buried remains in a garbage heap. Bielski writes that,
“Whether you believe in ghosts or not, the absence of honor for the dead brings nothing but disruption and trouble for the living. A place for the dead in our history and memory—and in our physical world—is essential for our present and for our future, laying to rest, whether in broken and abandoned acreages or among pristine and perfect hills, our broken and perfected dreams as well.”
Stories of the paranormal familiar to many Chicagoans—such as Bachelors Grove and Resurrection Mary—are featured in the book, as are some tales that aren’t quite as famous, such as those of retailer Richard Warren Sears or a drowned pilot known as “Seaweed Charlie.”
Hucke writes that this revised edition is improved in part due to two pieces of technology unavailable to him fifteen years ago: GPS, which made finding graves much easier, and the digital camera. No longer hampered by the cost of developing film, Hucke was able to take many more photos on his recent cemetery visits. Another piece of modern technology enhances the paperback: a QR code for each entry, which links the reader to additional photos (even better in color), a map of the area, and cemetery websites.
The authors also recognize the taphophiles and historians before them, including Helen “The Cemetery Lady” Sclair, who was an authority on local burial customs and cemetery history for more than thirty years before she passed away and was buried at Bohemian National Cemetery on the North Side. It wasn’t much of a move; for about the last seven years of her life, she lived in the caretaker’s cottage at the cemetery. She is remembered on her headstone as “an advocate for the dead.”
Graveyards of Chicago is a solid book that belongs on the shelf of any Chicago history enthusiast or taphophile.
November 2013, Lake Claremont Press
$16.95, paperback, 423 pages
—Reviewed by Paige Fumo Fox
“The cemetery is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies. It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.”
—Percy Bysshe Shelly, Adonais