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History Comes Alive in Chicago’s Graveyards

CBR_Logo2Graveyards of Chicago:
The People, History, Art, and Lore of
Cook County Cemeteries

by Matt Hucke and Ursula Bielski

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.

GOC2-cover-front3-661x1024In 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.

Four-Star Review

November 2013, Lake Claremont Press
Regional history
$16.95, paperback, 423 pages
ISBN: 978-1-893121-21-8

—Reviewed by Paige Fumo Fox

Read more about the book.
Learn more about Chicago graveyards.


“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


Filed under nonfiction

Looking to the Past to Find Her Future


The Firebird
Susanna Kearsley

9781402276637-PRNew York Times bestselling author Susanna Kearsley has, in her latest novel, blended history, romance, and the supernatural in a complex story within a story that bridges past and present.

The Firebird takes off when Nicola Marter touches a handsome wooden carving, launching her powers of extrasensory perception to reveal the intriguing history of a seemingly otherwise nondescript object. Nicola’s touch reveals stories, glimpses of the lives of people who have come before. It is a gift she rarely uses, one she denies to herself, a secret she keeps from others.

Nicola’s touch of the carving—and the vision it shares with her—sets her on a journey to discover its provenance, ostensibly to help the owner, a woman who hopes it will be valuable enough to finance her future. The journey becomes a path toward self-discovery, allowing Nicola to examine her gifts and to decide whether she will accept her abilities or deny them.

Why, when she is loathe to admit to her abilities, Nicola chooses to follow the path set in front of her is a bit of a mystery, as is her reason for helping a woman she really doesn’t know. Kearsley seems more focused on showing readers what will happen to Nicola than on explaining her motivations for helping a complete stranger. As the impetus for Nicola’s journey, it seems a bit weak.

That weak start, however, in no way spoils the book, which is reminiscent of both A. S. Byatt’s Possession and Alice Hoffman’s Turtle Moon. The Firebird is a thick tapestry, colored by rich details and interesting characters. Kearsley sets an enchanting stage, expertly capturing people, places, and periods of time and deftly moving from Nicola’s story to the parallel story in the book, that of Anna Moray.

Nicola’s initial vision of the firebird reveals Anna to her, sending her from England to Scotland (where she hooks up with an old flame and fellow psychic) to Belgium to Russia. With psychic friend Rob’s help, Nicola is able to see into the past and to track Anna as she herself follows her own journey, also one of self-discovery.

Despite the centuries that divide them, Nicola’s and Anna’s stories are not dissimilar. In fact, they may be too similar in some ways, particularly when it comes to the somewhat clichéd romances the two women fall into. Both, for instance, become smitten with men they resist. In Anna’s world the cliché is especially predictable: she hates him, she loves him, she hates him, she loves him. Nicola’s own romance is a bit trite as well: she loves him, she leaves him, she comes back to him, they fight, they get back together. No real surprises in either love angle, which may be a disappointment to some readers.

The somewhat hackneyed romances, however, aren’t enough to derail either storyline, both of which are punctuated with compelling history and interesting details about the art world. Kearsley has a lovely eye for scenery, drawing tableaux that create an evocative sense of time and place. Although the settings are gorgeous, Kearsey sometimes veers into explanations of key events that are much too facile, wrought seemingly in the desire to ensure that each of the various subplots of the novel culminates in a happy ending.

Not that there’s anything wrong with happy endings. Jane Austen made her name in happy endings. Because Nicola grows as a person, we can forgive the pollyannish aspects of the novel. Because the telling of the story is so rich, so well done, we can forgive both the flimsy foundation that sets Nicola on her journey as well as the overly simplistic way in which the tricky aspects of the novel are tied up, all neat and tidy.

Kearsley is a fine storyteller, even if she doesn’t exactly challenge the reader. For readers who like their romance with a little history, or their history with a little romance, The Firebird is a fine choice.

Three-Star Review

June 2013, Sourcebooks/Landmark
$16.99, trade paperback, 539 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1-4022-7663-7

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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