What we remember


Bohemian National Cemetery / Photo credit: Jeff Zoline

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.


Albin Polasek's 1927 statue, "Mother," in front of the crematorium

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

meat cleaver

A “resume” stone marking the grave of a pharmacist

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?

Sources: Friends of Bohemian National Cemetery, Graveyards of Chicago, and the Bohemian National Cemetery.org. Here’s a Google map of the location of the Bohemian National Cemetery.

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16 Responses to What we remember

  1. Alison Lerner May 10, 2010 at 10:41 am #

    Many members of my family are buried is a small Jewish cemetary on the west side of Pulaski between Bryn Mawr and Peterson which is now wedged between industrial buildings.

  2. frances728 May 10, 2010 at 11:48 am #

    Alison, do you mean in the Temple Beth-El Cemetery? That was the temple my family belonged to when I was child, though it was in West Rogers Park at the time. I have a photograph of the Temple’s building when it was in the Wicker Park area on Crystal, in the post called Former Synagogues. There are several cemeteries on Pulaski: Montrose Cemetery, St. Luke’s and I think Beth-El’s plot might be shared with another synagogue. What a neighborhood!

  3. Sheila Linderman May 10, 2010 at 11:55 am #

    I remember being fairly obsessed with this cemetery when I was a kid. Glad I’m not the only one! I am actually still cemetery obsessed, and make it a point to visit the oldest one wherever I am.

  4. Arlene Andresen May 10, 2010 at 12:09 pm #

    Hi Frances….I remember going by this cemetary and always being “scared”! I wonder if it’s older then Waldheim. My entire family is there. I get the creeps just walking thru it. It’s not kept very well anymore.

  5. frances728 May 10, 2010 at 12:16 pm #

    Arlene, after walking around Bohemian I don’t think cemeteries are creepy anymore. They should have taken us there on a history field trip back in high school. More interesting than textbooks.

  6. frances728 May 10, 2010 at 12:17 pm #

    Sheila, if we’re ever in the same town at the same time, I’d love to do a walking tour through one with you.

  7. Jennifer May 10, 2010 at 1:43 pm #

    Frances, Your pictures turned out wonderfully!(Gotta love the ‘resume’ grave stones). It really was a fascinating afternoon and I learned more from our tour guide in that hour than I have in entire seminars given over several weeks!

  8. frances728 May 10, 2010 at 1:50 pm #

    Jennifer, looking forward to the next one!

  9. Marge Sladek Stueckemann May 11, 2010 at 10:56 am #

    Frances – Al Walavich forwarded this to me – what a wonderful synopsis of our beloved Bohemian National Cemetery! I am president of Friends of BNC. Just a note: try coming back later in May to see flowers – those of us who put flowers on our relatives’ graves don’t do so until after frost warnings are not in place.
    The parade was for Memorial Day when the Bohemian Old People’s Home and Orphanage was located just south of BNC. We still have a parade (join us Monday, May 31st at 9:00 a.m. for free Czech refreshments and a short parade to the Columbarium for the ceremonies including music, Czech poem, flowers for the women, and the singing of all the service’s theme songs as veterans of each branch are honored). As for the person who wrote it isn’t being cared for as well anymore, I wonder when she was there, because with our new grass-care service, I think she’d be pleased.

    What did you mean by “seventh inning stretch at BNC”? We are very proud of our Eternal Skybox Cubs wall (did you notice the ivy now growing there?), but that sounds intriguing!

    We are so pleased that you enjoyed the tour and learned so much. Please come again!
    The Czech picnic open to the community is Sunday, July 18th from noon-4:00 p.m. and
    an illustrated program, “BNC Then and Now” will be Sunday, August 22nd at 1:00 p.m. with homemade Czech pastries included. Both events are no charge.

    Marge Sladek Stueckemann

  10. Bonnie McGrath May 11, 2010 at 6:48 pm #

    frances, al went to senn with me–although i didn’t know him there.. however, i have been on a number of his history tours through the history museum. he sure is he interesting, isn’t he???

  11. frances728 May 11, 2010 at 7:07 pm #

    Small world. I’d definitely go on another of his tours.

  12. Dave May 13, 2010 at 9:45 am #

    It’s wonderful that you were able to highlight the vast amount of Chicago history found at Bohemian.
    I have read that Bnai Zion Synagogue, formerly in East Rogers Park shares the Beth El plot. BZ a few years ago was merged with the long time North Park area icon Shaare Tikvah.

  13. frances728 May 13, 2010 at 8:35 pm #

    Dave, they’re still using the Shaare Tikvah building, right? That is such an impressive building, takes up most of the block facing Kimball. When I passed Shaare Tikvah as a child, I’d look up and the window seemed to be sky high. I remember quite a few kids from the neighborhood went to Hebrew School there.

  14. Dave May 14, 2010 at 11:19 pm #

    They are still holding services at Shaare Tikvah. The building is certainly elegant and housed one of the largest congregations on the north side.

  15. Eileen Landau June 8, 2010 at 1:10 pm #

    Ah…my grandparents are also buried at that small cemetery which was affiliated with Beth El when it was located on Touhy.

    We’ve tried to get in to see and photograph the headstones. But, you have to make an appointment and the times just never work as it’s an hour drive to get there.

    I wonder if they do any upkeep? Anybody know? Anybody been there recently?

  16. Frances June 8, 2010 at 1:21 pm #

    Eileen, I drive by nearly once a week so one of these times I’ll make a stop and see what I can learn. If you want send me your grandparents names, either posting here or privately by sending an email via the contact tab on my blog. We were members of Temple Beth-El on Touhy as well. Thanks for visiting.

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