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Chicago’s Cemeteries Offer Solace for the Living

Our copyeditor (and noted boulevardier) visits the eerie acres untouched by the stay-at-home order.

The copper relief adorning the grave of German-language newspaper publisher Anton Hesing at St. Boniface Cemetery.   Photography: Robert Loerzel

People of Chicago: Please don’t ruin the cemeteries, too. Please don’t crowd around tombstones. If you go walking in a graveyard, don’t get too close to strangers on the paths and roadways. Don’t make the cemetery managers — or Mayor Lori Lightfoot — angry by violating social distancing guidelines.

Cemeteries are among the dwindling places where Chicagoans are allowed to enjoy some outdoor respite from Governor J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve taken walks through a few graveyards near where I live on the North Side: Wunder’s Cemetery, St. Boniface, Rosehill, and the most magnificent Graceland. I wasn’t alone during these visits, but the cemeteries certainly weren’t crowded. It was never hard for me to maintain a distance from the other folks walking amid the grave markers and mausoleums. Six feet? Heck, I stayed 20 feet or more away from anyone I spied coming in my direction.

Last Friday morning at Rosehill — Chicago’s largest cemetery, sprawling across 350 acres — I encountered a herd of 10 deer and another group of four deer while I hunted for the graves of famous Chicagoans like Mayor “Long John” Wentworth and bicycle maker Ignaz Schwinn. Other people walked down Rosehill’s curving roadways as a police cruiser slowly rolled along. I guessed that the cop inside was keeping an eye out for people violating the mayor’s social distancing order. I noticed a few people bicycling and one person walking a dog, activities that violate the rules posted at Rosehill’s entrance.

But it’ll be a while now before most people get a chance to stroll through the Edgewater cemetery. On Tuesday, the cemetery posted an announcement on its Facebook page: Rosehill is now open by appointment only, as a measure to “ensure the safety & well being of visitors & staff.”

Graceland Cemetery and Arboretum, a verdant landscape in Uptown filled with artistically designed grave markers and mausoleums, was still open as of Wednesday, but its website said: “While closely monitoring the situation, please be advised that we may need to close the gates to the public at some point in the near future.” During the coronavirus pandemic, Graceland is prohibiting any groups larger than five people.

Visitors peer at the Inez Clarke statue, one of Graceland’s most enigmatic monuments.

Graceland Cemetery rescinded its rule against bicycling in 2017, as WBEZ’s Curious City reported. But it has rules against other sorts of behavior considered rude in a resting place for the deceased. For example, no pets or animals are allowed, except assistance animals. Also prohibited: “Leisurely recreational activities, such as Roller Skating, Rollerblading, Skateboarding, Ball playing, Frisbee use and the playing of musical instruments.”

I haven’t seen any coyotes during my recent visits to Graceland, but the animals are a fairly common sight. Local historian and tour guide Adam Selzer, who’s writing a book about Graceland, has posted several photos of the cemetery’s coyotes, who generally keep a distance from human interlopers. And no visit to Graceland is complete without a visit to sculptor Lorado Taft’s Eternal Silence, a hooded figure that stands at the burial place of Dexter Graves, one of Chicago’s early white settlers. Emil Ferris, who grew up nearby, recounted some local folklore about this ominous statue in her compelling 2017 graphic novel My Favorite Thing Is Monsters: “Every kid in Uptown knows that if you’re brave enough to stare straight into the face of the cloaked guy, for a long time without blinking, you’ll see a vision of your death.”

During these perilous times, when many of us are thinking more about our mortality, you may not want to stare too long at the cloaked guy’s face. Then again, the very act of visiting cemeteries is a way of reminding ourselves about death.

Eternal Silence, a 1909 sculpture by Lorado Taft. Dexter Graves died in 1844; his body was likely relocated to Graceland from City Cemetery, the site of present-day Lincoln Park.

But when I tweeted some photos from Rosehill Cemetery last week, former Chicago Reader editor Jerome Ludwig, who lives in Berlin, remarked that walking in cemeteries is “life affirming.” As he explained, cemeteries “are an expression of history.”

I agree with that sentiment, but you needn’t dwell on such deep thoughts when you visit a graveyard. The best thing about cemeteries right now? They’re a great place to get away from people — living people, anyway. Let’s hope we don’t lose these places of refuge at a time when they offer so much solace.

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