Cemeteries are fascinating. All that history and architecture squished into one place. Just over in Forest Park is the Forest Home Cemetery, previously known as Waldheim Cemetery. Founded in 1873 as a non-denominational cemetery many Freemasons and German speaking immigrants were buried here. The cemetery is the resting place of Emma Goldman, well-known for her political activism, the Haymarket Martyrs’ monument, in honor of those that died in the bombing of a labor protest in 1886, and the burial ground for Ernest Hemingway’s parents.
Within minutes of entering, we were told to move our car in order to allow a funeral procession to come through. We passed another two or three locations where preparation were being made for funerals. And, toward the end of our visit we paused for five or ten minutes to allow another procession to pass. And it was only Friday. Weekend traffic in Chicago’s suburbs is often delayed for funeral processions. It’s the sad, daunting reality of the city’s violence.
I suppose that’s what made visiting Forest Home so strange. You weave between old, historic areas, marked by smaller graves–where the names are barely visible–and newer areas where fresh ground has been dug and families are gathering to mourn. How do you appreciate the old, without being disrespectful to those coming to bury their loved ones?
There’s a sudden feeling of quiet when you enter a cemetery. Your voice dips into a whisper. Somehow you become instantly emotional about these people you’ve never met. You find yourself on the verge of tears as you pause in front of the graves of children. Or quieted by the site of so many members of one family buried next to each other. You drop into deep thought. I often think if there were more benches in graveyards it would be a perfect place to sit and think about life, especially since you’re their to appreciate the lives of others.
Cemetery architecture is haunting. Angels, praying women, urns. What interested me at Forest Home was the repetitive figures on the top of the graves. Even those at the turn of the 20th century. I always think of older graves as having more unique and individualized stones, and while some of those at Forest Home were clearly designed specially, most were clearly picked out of book. In the oldest part of the cemetery the graves were spread further apart and had started to sink into the ground–they were barely visible.
I’ve always thought the most interesting part of a cemetery are the mausoleums. They seem so grand, important, and old. I was a bit dismayed when I saw the mausoleums at Forest Home. From a distance they looked as beautiful as ever, but the moment I got closer I could see areas of graffiti. Most of them are poorly boarded up with plywood. Instead of looking grand they look dilapidated.
No matter how run-down parts of the cemetery may have left or how uncomfortable I may I have felt at time, I left Forest Home Cemetery feeling humbled. I left with a better sense of Chicago’s history old and new.