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Commune With the City’s Dead In New Book About Chicago Cemeteries, Chicago Eternal

Cemeteries remind us this is a city of change in multiple ways. Not just the impermanence and fragility of life, but in the ways the landscape of the city shifts with growth. In a new book, Larry Broutman documents many of the city’s cemeteries and the famous and not-as-famous dead that rest there.

Chicago Eternal is the third collection of photography from Broutman. It was a massive undertaking of over five years, photographing more than 300 gravesites in 32 cemeteries in the Chicagoland area. “For me as a photographer, it is not only the human stories but the visual richness of cemeteries that is so arresting,” says Broutman in the introduction. “Photographing the images for this book has shown me how very many ways Chicagoans over the decades and centuries have found to visibly express their love and loss in beautiful monuments.” Our city is indeed a young city, but we are almost two centuries old. Cemeteries are a way for us in the present to connect to our city’s past, and a guarantee that the future will find a connection to us in the present.

The photographs range from color to black-and-white, with some burial grounds covered in the snow of winter or surrounded by lush blooming trees of spring, a reminder that death waits not for the right season. It is an areligious document, a dedication solely to the monuments and the people, regardless of belief systems and the “sleeping cities with their guardian angels of stone.” There are gravesites dedicated to firefighters, doctors, politicians, athletes, artists, soldiers, children, pets, immigrants, and those that have streets, buildings, and businesses named after them as well as those who would have otherwise been forgotten to history.

The book also does a great job of documenting the variety of graves, from overtly religious sculptures, to war memorials, to the simple flat gravestone such as that of Mayor Jane Byrne in Cavalry Cemetery in Evanston. There is a focus on nuance and detail, and how some of these have faded on some tombs that have themselves been ravaged by time.

The book opens with City Cemetery, which was active from 1845 – 1866. In 1869 most of the bodies were removed for burial elsewhere as the land transitioned to what we know today as Lincoln Park. But Couch Tomb remains as a reminder about the area’s past. Many of these graves were moved to Graceland, a cemetery famous for excessive monuments dedicated to Potter Palmer, William Kimball, and George Pullman. But it is also the resting place of Kate Warne, the first female detective in the United States; Fridolin Madlener, inventor of Fig Rye aka “ideal health whiskey;” and Moses Shirra, a Scottish immigrant who founded a successful grocery store chain.

The book doesn’t shy away from Chicago’s racial tensions, that exist even in burial. Burr Oak Cemetery in the Southwest Suburb of Alsip was where whites protested against a predominantly African-American cemetery in 1927. It is most famously known as the home of the gravesite of Emmett Till. Broutman dedicates the most attention of a single gravesite in the whole book to the tragic and brutal death of Till, and the racial strife that still reverberates today. Till’s mother Mamie Till was a civil rights activist and is buried here as well.

Broutman leaves out any mention of a 2009 scandal involving Burr Oak employees digging up graves. Then again, this book is primarily about photography, and in the introduction and throughout the book, Broutman provides other resources that go more in depth about the history of the specific places.

Chicago history and trivia are really what give the book its seasoning. Oak Woods is a famous Jewish Cemetery but also the resting place of Harold Washington, Jesse Owens and Martha Baker, plus a monument to Confederate soldiers who died in Union captivity. Lincoln Cemetery on the Far South Side is the home to poet Gwendolyn Brooks as well as Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman (also of Native descent) to hold a pilot’s license. Bohemian Cemetery on the Northwest Side features a monument to the passengers of the S.S. Eastland disaster where over 800 people drowned after the boat capsized along the Chicago River. It is also the resting place to Helen Sclair, a cemetery researcher, who documented two cemeteries that existed where O’Hare Airport now exists.

There is the O’Leary Monument in Mt. Olivet on 111th Street. Rosehill on the North Side is home to Oscar Mayer and Long John Wentworth, but also Leopold, Loeb, and the young boy they murdered, Bobby Franks. The infamous Circus Train Wreck of 1918 that claimed 86 circus employees when two trains collided with each other is memorialized in the West Suburbs; many of those graves in Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park are unmarked. There is an Assyrian section of Montrose Cemetery. A memorial to the Haymarket Martyrs in Forest Home cemetery in Forest Park. Harry Caray’s grave is at All Saints in Des Plaines, where Cubs fans leave green apples, because as Caray said: “Sure as God made green apples, the Cubs are going to make it back to the World Series.” Al Capone sleeps at Mt. Carmel along with many other of his, umm, associates. Howlin Wolf Burnett rests at Oakridge Cemetery in Hillside. Abe Saperstein, founder of the Harlem Globetrotters, is buried in Westlawn Cemetery (also home to the author’s father and uncle).

As if all of this detail and research weren’t enough, Broutman included fifteen photographs shot in 3-D. Although a fun perk, the photographs would have stood out just as much on their own without the third dimension. The only glaring oversight in the book was not including a map of where all of the cemeteries are located around the city, which would be handy for those wishing to visit these sites. While this is ostensibly a book about death, having an appreciation for art photography and an interest in Chicago cultural history is all one needs to enjoy this tome of tombs. One is not required a sense of morbid curiosity to enjoy Chicago Eternal, but it certainly helps.

Chicago Eternal is published by Lake Claremont Press. Larry Broutman will be giving a talk at City Lit (2523 N Kedzie) on Tuesday April 3, at 6:30pm. All author proceeds from sales of the book are being donated to the non-profit organizations Chicago Lighthouse and Access Living.

Also see our review of Broutman’s Chicago Monumental, which features his photographs of public statues, fountains and tombs. 

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