As regular readers of this blog know, I grew up in Chicago on North Central Park Avenue across from the grounds of the Municipal TB Sanitarium. Entirely hidden by a border of towering trees and overgrown shrubs, the TB Sanitarium was such a mysterious place I barely noticed the other large, fenced-in parcel of land in the neighborhood.
The signs on that iron fence read Bohemian National Cemetery. Because the Sanitarium and the Cemetery were on opposites sides of the same stretch of Bryn Mawr Avenue and their wrought iron fences were identical, I used to think the two places were somehow related.
The northeast corner of the cemetery, on Bryn Mawr, is four blocks from my childhood home. Whenever my mother drove the car by the cemetery, I looked out from the back seat and saw bouquets and wreaths on nearly every marker and monument. Some days, the pastel pink, yellow and blue flowers looked bright and fresh; on other days, not so much. But the flowers were there, always.
Recently my high school friend Jennifer Stix and I joined a group of about fifty or so people on a two-hour walking tour of the cemetery, led by Albert Walavich and organized by the Friends of the Bohemian National Cemetery. We didn’t see many bouquets or wreaths, though. That’s because in this country people no longer regularly visit family graves.
“Except here they do,” someone in our tour group whispered.
The cemetery was founded in 1877, but the section along Bryn Mawr that I passed by so frequently in my childhood is the newest part. The older section, including the site of the first burial–a baby girl–lies behind the crenellated limestone gatehouse on Pulaski Avenue. Our tour guide led us deep into this section, on a journey back in time and across the ocean. Cemeteries like this one, Mr. Walavich told us, are like ethnic museums.
This, then, is a Czech museum dedicated to Bohemian, Moravian and Slovakian immigrants and their descendants who came to live in or pass through the Chicago area, although the cemetery now accepts burials of any ethnicity. And although crosses adorn many monuments, it isn’t a Catholic cemetery, either.
Ah, but what history we found there:
Four monuments in memory of those who fought in the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II
A section devoted to victims of the Eastland ship disaster, many of whom were Czech
The mausoleum of Chicago mayor Anton Cermak, who was assassinated in 1933
The gravesite of the Kolar family, Mrs. O’Leary’s landlords
Famed Czech-American sculptor Albin Polasek’s monument dedicated to motherhood (Polasek headed the Art Institute of Chicago’s sculpture department for nearly 30 years.)
Sepia-colored photographs of the dead printed on porcelain and nailed to gravestones
“Resume” stones with symbols of the deceased’s profession, like the engraving depicting a butcher’s tools
Our tour guide mentioned that every year, on some anniversary, the Czech community paraded outside the the cemetery gatehouse along Pulaski Avenue. Long, traffic-stopping parades. Four blocks away, I never knew of the parades. Maybe that says something about the insularity of some Chicago neighborhoods in those days, maybe I just don’t remember.
In 2002, the Bohemian National Cemetery was designated a National Landmark. If you’d like to read more about the cemetery’s history, check out the resources I’ve linked below.
Next Monday: How about a seventh-inning stretch at the Bohemian National Cemetery?