The first grave visible from the entrance, straight up the main pathway, was an obelisk of at least fifteen feet. Standing atop it, in a patch of sky between two trees, was a statue of a woman with a cross clutched close to the chest.
“Does that say ‘Villains?'” Eleanor asked. She squinted, attempting to read the name at the base.
“It’s ‘Williams,'” Gwen corrected. “You should start wearing your glasses regularly.”
“I know, I know,” Eleanor said. “I just don’t want to keep carrying them around.”
“It’s not that hard to do,” Dania answered. “Once you get used to––”
Dania left the sentence hanging, as she walked past a gravestone with an angel imprinted on the side. She shuddered.
“I don’t know why you’re so afraid of cemeteries,” Eleanor said. “Everyone here is dead, what are they going to do to you?”
“Well, that’s the thing, Eleanor,” Dania said, looking her dead in the eye. “What if they’re not dead?”
“If someone isn’t dead, and you bury them underground,” Gwen said, “they’ll be dead soon enough.”
The crackling fall chill gave their walk through Graceland a morbid overtone – although the approach of Halloween likely didn’t help matters. Dania continued to breathe normally, trying to focus on anything other than the literal knowledge of what was lying below her.
“I’ve always considered cemeteries a great place to walk,” Gwen suggested. “It’s quiet, it’s well-paved, lots of greenery to look at. Along the way, you get to look at all of the interesting graves. If you’re an architecture fan, it’s fun.”
“I always try to find the oldest person,” Eleanor replied. “Which is usually a pretty simple grave, or one that’s more worn down.”
“Oldest by birth or death?” Gwen asked, as they passed a grave marking the birthyear of 1810.
“Usually they’re the same,” Eleanor said. “Or two graves are pretty close.”
They turned down a path taking them further north. Glancing around, Eleanor took note of the haphazard arrangement of stones through the graveyard: with Graceland around for so long, the older graves were mostly situated towards the front entrance. As they walked towards the northeast corner, the dates began getting progressively more recent – and larger monuments gave way to flat headstones.
“Look at that one!” Dania said, pointing across the green to a pyramid jutting out from the ground. Upon closer inspection, the mausoleum also boasted a pair of statues –– a plaintive angel, and a scowling sphinx –– beneath the name “SCHOENHOFEN.”
“That doesn’t sound Egyptian,” Dania mused.
“It’s an artistic choice,” Gwen said. “Powerful people wanting to emulate pharaohs.”
“More cultural appropriation by white people,” Dania muttered. Eleanor grinned.
The trio continued on. On their left, Gwen stopped to observe a long, deep grave with the name WACKER written across the top.
“Think that’s the Wacker of Wacker Drive?” Dania wondered.
“Could be,” Gwen replied. “There are plenty of Chicago notables who are buried in Graceland. I’ve definitely seen Deerings and McCormicks around.”
In the distance, Eleanor could just make out the lake at the center of Graceland Cemetery. It really is constructed and landscaped just like a public park, she though. A park that happens to have dead people in it.
“Woah, I’ve never seen that one before,” Gwen said, walking onto the grass.
“Gwen!” Dania called. “You’re stepping on the dead!”
“Relax, it’s grass.” Gwen crouched down to observe a headstone, about four feet wide, into which was implanted a bas relief in bronze of a bespectacled man with a book. Around the image were names written in both English and Braille: “DANTE – HOMER – VIRGIL – MILTON – SHAKESPEARE.”
“I’m going to take a wild guess and say this was a writer,” Eleanor said. She read the name, written above: “Matt Rizzo ‘Scorto.'” His death, in 1987, and the translation in Braille, were printed below.
“Think he was blind?” Eleanor asked. “Or just inclusive?”
“‘Here lies one whose name is writ in water,’ Keats,” Gwen read the inscription. “What does that mean, ‘writ in water?’ Water is transient.”
“It’s from Keats’ own gravestone,” Eleanor said. “The meaning is up for debate. But perhaps that’s the idea, someone who manages to inscribe their name in something as flowing as water has to be great.”
“Well, when I die, I’ll use stone.” Gwen stood and returned to the path. “Stone lasts.”
“Sure,” Dania said. She looked to the other side and noticed a robed statuette, missing its head and hands.
They continued around the lake. Along one of the banks, they noticed a collection of more recent grave markers – including the grave of famed Chicago Cubs player Ernie Banks, who only passed in 2015. Sitting atop his headstone, carved in granite, was a baseball mitt.
“There’s Ruth Page,” Gwen said, indicating the monolithic slab of granite, accented with an etching of a dancer, that stood adjacent to Banks’ grave. “Maybe this is the Chicago Celebrities section of the park.”
“Do you know who Bruce Goff was?” Dania asked. She had walked up a few feet, and now stood looking at the ground.
“His grave is a triangle.”
Gwen and Eleanor joined Dania at the grave of “BRUCE GOFF ARCHITECT,” as the inscription read. The tricorner headstone featured a gem of cut glass sticking from the top, catching the reflection of the sky above it.
“It’s strange how some of the more modern graves specify occupation,” Gwen commented, as they walked on. “Part of the appeal of a graveyard is the sense of equalizing, the notion that no matter how famous you are, everyone dies. Pointing out that certain people are more famous seems like an odd status symbol.”
“Well, what about the graveyard isn’t a status symbol?” Eleanor asked.
“The equality, like I said,” Gwen said. “Everyone dies, everyone gets buried. It’s the idea of ‘you can’t take it with you.'”
“But you can build a giant stone monument to yourself,” Eleanor said. “All the Wackers and McCormicks and that one with the giant pyramid. I mean, how many graves do you remember here that are just simple headstones?”
Gwen had never considered this before. She looked out at the open field of more recent additions to Graceland, and after the first few flat headstones, the mass of the interred seemed to fade away, into the uncut grass. At the far end of the field, towering above, was a pale white statue with her finger pointed toward the sky.
“You can’t take it with you, sure,” Eleanor agreed. “But you can leave a lot of it behind.”
In the center of Graceland’s lake was Burnham Island, a patch of land that, as Gwen realized once across the footbridge, contained only eight interments –– all from the Burnham Family itself. The most recent addition from 1945, of Margaret Sherman Burnham, overlooked the water towards the bank where Page, Banks, and Goff had set their markers.
“This is the dream, right here,” Dania commented. “Getting my own island in the middle of the graveyard.”
“Nah, I’d rather have a simple headstone. Maybe slightly higher than the rest, but not a monument,” Eleanor said. “I’d feel weird about it.”
“Well, you wouldn’t, you’d be dead.”
Gwen looked out across the water. From the point of view of the Burnham’s, the field full of flat headstones Gwen had seen before looked almost entirely empty.
“Smile,” Dania called. Gwen turned to see Dania, at the edge of the bridge, taking a panoramic shot of the island.
“Love the landscaping,” Eleanor said.
“Right,” Dania agreed. “Now let’s get back to the path, please.”
Gwen and Eleanor walked back over the bridge together. “I don’t get why she’s afraid of cemeteries.”
“Superstition, I don’t know,” Gwen said. On the other side of the path, Gwen caught sight of a small flat headstone. “EMMA C LARSON –– APR 25 1865 –– JULY 17 1903” was the full inscription. Gwen silently wondered who she was.
“So you wouldn’t want a huge headstone?” Dania asked Eleanor, per their earlier conversation.
“No,” Eleanor said. “I mean, I wouldn’t want to just be one of the hundreds of indistinguishable flat headstones, I’d want to have something different. But I wouldn’t want to, like, build a statue in my honor, or whatever. There’s that one statue in here of the Crusader –– Gwen, do you know where that is?”
“It’s the gravesite of Victor Lawson, but it could be anywhere in the park,” Gwen said.
“So I have no idea who that is, but his grave is this massive, ten-foot tall sculpture of a Christian crusader. Which is a lot.”
“That is a lot,” Dania agreed, with a hint of distaste.
“It’s a cool statue,” Eleanor said. “But as a grave? It’s a bit much. That one would do for me.”
She was pointing at a grave about four feet high, topped with a Celtic-inspired cross.
“Are you Christian?” Dania asked.
“No,” she replied. “But the scale, you get it?”
“So basically that one,” Gwen said, indicating a grave whose cross had broken apart and fallen down around the base.
“I’d want this,” Dania said, indicating the mausoleum up the path -– a granite cube with arches set into the center of each side, an overhanging flat roof, and, in the middle of one side, a set of worn green doors.
“Oh, that’s an important one,” Eleanor said. “It’s the Getty Tomb.”
Gwen, silently, considered the word Important.
“Getty who?” Dania asked. “The stock image guy?”
Eleanor smirked. “No.”
Dania and Eleanor consulted the plaque at the building’s base –– added in 1971, when the crypt was designated a Chicago Landmark. Gwen, for her part, held back to look again at the tomb in full.
“Lumber magnate,” Eleanor read. “He and his wife and daughter are in there.”
Dania looked up at the building again, squat and plain. “Why is this one the Chicago Landmark? The pyramid from before is more interesting.”
“Architectural history. Louis Sullivan is important.”
“Well, congrats to the Gettys,” Dania said. “Picking a famous architect to design their grave, no one’s ever gonna forget them now.”
A shiver ran down Gwen’s spine. Perhaps it was for different reasons, but she could feel that perhaps Dania’s distaste for graveyards was beginning, slowly, to run through her.
Happy Halloween! 🎃
Image Credit: All photos taken by the author