Speaking with the dead

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By JOSH ADAMS

Nancy Greco never imagined she would deliver one of her more memorable performances as a professional actress while standing in a graveyard, but apparently she did.

In all but one of the guided cemetery tours hosted by The Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest, Greco has portrayed the life of a person buried in the Forest Home Cemetery. It was her performance some three years ago as Belle Gunness, one of the Midwest's most prolific female serial killers that draws recognition from strangers today.

"Of all the people you could remember," Greco said. "She was the least glamorous but the most frightening."

On Oct. 15 Greco and eight other performers will breathe new life into some of Forest Park's deceased residents during the 15th annual Tale of the Tombstones. The two hour guided tour serves the practical purpose of raising money for the nonprofit group, but perhaps more importantly it has become a hallmark event for the historical society.

This year also marks the 120th anniversary of the Haymarket Affair, a pivotal point in the international labor movement. A monument honoring the eight men convicted of inciting a deadly riot in Haymarket Square in Chicago marks their graves, and those of others buried in the cemetery's famed Dissenters Row.

Laurel McMahon is a former president of the historical society and sits on the organization's board of directors. McMahon has spearheaded the tour for years and said one of her biggest objectives is to convince people that Forest Home Cemetery-and cemeteries in general-are not dreary places to avoid.

"Cemeteries should be places of life," McMahon said. "Forest Home is a cemetery of life."

Forest Park's 220-acre burial ground was originally designed as a park, McMahon said and served a recreational purpose even after it became a place of interment. Families from Chicago would spend the day in the cemetery tending to the graves of loved ones, McMahon said. Because the trip from the city was a bit more arduous than it is today, families would pack lunches and plan to spend several hours in the cemetery.

Greco, a native of Chicago, said her parents used to take a rail car along Roosevelt Road and enjoy picnics in Forest Home Cemetery while tending graves.

"It's more than visiting your family," McMahon said. "It's a walk through living history."

This year will be Mike Stewart's seventh performance as one of Forest Park's deceased residents. Stewart is playing the role of Edwin Conway, a former member of the Odd Fellows fraternal organization who died in 1919. By day, Stewart is the marketing director for the Oak Park Regional Housing Center and has no qualms admitting these graveyard performances tend to stretch his talents. Stewart, 41, said he was never even involved in high school drama.

"This is totally out of my range," Stewart said.

But he is a fan of historical information and has been able to incorporate pieces of his antique collection as props. On trips to the East Coast and other areas of the country, Stewart said he now finds himself browsing through cemeteries in search of interesting headstones.

"I love this," Stewart said. "It kind of breaks me out of my shell."

In years past Stewart has played a doctor devoted to the homeless, a golfer who founded a nearby country club and a fireman.

Glenn Braun is a relative newcomer to the cemetery tour and is scheduled to give his second performance this year. Braun has something of a feature role this year portraying George Engel, one of the eight martyrs from the Haymarket Affair.

History as a subject offers a number of attractions for Braun, who is in the process of organizing an Abraham Lincoln presenter's society for men who bear a likeness to the former U.S. president.

Braun is also a recent transplant to Forest Park, having moved here two years ago from New York. His profession as a model ship builder and his interest in Abe Lincoln certainly demonstrate a curiosity of years past, but Braun said living on the East Coast has sheltered him somewhat from local history.

"I had never heard of the Haymarket riot for that matter," Braun said.

Piquing the interests of newcomers and lifers alike is a large part of what McMahon said she hopes to accomplish with the tour. Aside from the Haymarket Affair, McMahon said this year's tour will also focus on Forest Park's secret societies. Many of these organizations are substantially less mysterious than the public may think, McMahon said, and largely served social and philanthropic roles.

"One thing they all seem to have in common is that by improving the individual, you will improve society," McMahon said.

Groups like the Odd Fellows, Masons and dozens of other fraternal organizations were focused on brotherhood, social networking and providing a financial safety net for members, McMahon said. During an age absent of iPods and television, social interaction was that much more important, McMahon said. And for immigrant groups struggling to overcome language and cultural barriers, these organizations offered meaningful connections.

Though the person is not buried in Forest Park, McMahon said one former area resident belonged to some 42 fraternal groups.

Among the financial advantages offered by these secret societies is a guaranteed final resting place, McMahon said. Many of the graves in Forest Home are marked with symbols declaring that person's membership to various organizations. There are entire cemeteries devoted to specific organizations, McMahon said, which may be shocking to people today to think that people chose not to be buried with family.

"These people all chose to be buried with other members of fraternal organizations," McMahon said. 

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