By Tom Holmes
Much of the imagery associated with Halloween has to do with cemeteries, and Forest Park has a lot of them. The Encyclopedia of Chicago published by Newberry Library, credits cemeteries as the first economic engines of Forest Park and lists the cemetery business as the town's "main industry."
Everybody knows that, but did you know how many corpses are "residents" of the village which used to be called Harlem? Estimates are that about 200,000 souls are at rest north of Madison Street in Forest Park.
Laurel McMahon, a River Forest resident, loves Forest Home Cemetery. She helped write the definitive guide: Nature's Choicest Spot, A Guide to Forest Home and German Waldheim Cemeteries. McMahon is planning her own burial in Forest Home and has a wealth of stories about the graveyard which reveal an interesting and sometimes poignant look at the village's past.
Forest Home Cemetery is the final resting place for a widely diverse group of people. Everybody knows that, but did you know that the largest section of the cemetery devoted to a single group is Section E, in which every grave is home to a member of the Ancient Order of the Druids fraternal organization (or a member of a "Druid's" family). The landmark for the section is a monument topped with a thoughtful looking statue resembling Merlin.
Fittingly around Halloween, the roots of the holiday we celebrate on Oct. 31 come from the druidic ancient Celtic culture. A 2013 article in the New York Times contains the following quote from Ellen Evert Hopeman, a 62 year old Druid priestess and scholar: "Samhain is Halloween. Halloween is Samhain."
Forest Home Cemetery has a Roma or Gypsy section right near the entrance on Desplaines Ave. Everybody knows that, but did you know that Roma graves are also scattered throughout the grounds? According to McMahon, Forest Home until the 1950s was the only final resting place for Gypsies in the entire Midwest. "If you know what names to look for," she said, "you can find them west of the river as well."
Oak Park has been a leader during the last fifty years in creating and sustaining a multicultural community, but did you know that it was the predecessors of Forest Home Cemetery which almost 150 years ago broke down restrictive rules regarding where folks could "reside" after they died?
McMahon pointed out that 40-50 percent of Americans in the middle of the 19th Century belonged to at least one fraternal organization like the Masonic Lodge. "Fraternal organizations were wildly popular with the first and second generation Germans who settled in this area," she said. "They found a sense of community with people who spoke their language and shared their culture."
The problem was that the Lutheran and Catholic cemeteries which existed at the time would not allow fraternal symbols to be displayed on gravestones.
So, when Ferdinand Haase sold a parcel of land in 1873 to the group which founded Waldheim Cemetery, the decision was made to allow fraternal symbols to be displayed. Bernard Roos, the first superintendant of Waldheim, was Lutheran himself but nevertheless upheld the policy that everyone was welcome.
McMahon said, "That's why I find this cemetery to be so fascinating. When you enter a Christian cemetery, you pretty much know what symbols and phrases to expect will be on the tombstones, but not in Forest Home."
Forest Home became the final resting place of some people, famous and infamous, who were denied burial anywhere else. Mobsters, mob enforcers, serial killers and murderers were welcomed, no questions asked.
Norwegian landlady and serial killer Belle Gunness (1859 -1908) was supposedly buried there – or a woman whose remains were found in her burned Indiana farm. Adolph Luetgert, (1845-1899) the "Sausage Vat Killer," was accused in the disappearance of his young wife and the discovery of her wedding ring in a sausage vat.
The whole world seems to be worried about Ebola, and some Americans want to limit or even restrict, entrance into this country by people from West Africa. Everybody knows that, but did you know that when there was a small pox epidemic in 1880-81, Forest Home accepted for burial victims of that disease who were barred from burial in cemeteries in and around Chicago?
"They are buried in a big grassy area near the expressway," said McMahon, "and the graves are not marked. People were dying so quickly and many of their families did not have the wherewithall to buy a stone."
Forest Home/ German Waldheim also buried people who died in the 1918 influenza epidemic and victims of the Iroquois Theater Fire in 1903.
Thousands of people drive right by Forest Home Cemetery on their daily commute. Everybody knows that, but did you know that when the Eisenhower Expressway was being constructed in the 1950s, its completion was delayed by two years because 2000 graves from Forest Home and Concordia Cemeteries had to be dug up and moved, each move requiring family members to be tracked down and notified?
McMahon mused on the diversity of people interred in Forest Home. She said that her ancestors were German and those of her husband Dennis were Irish and that the cultural differences between the "beer drinkers and the whiskey drinkers caused a lot of stress and antagonism."
The irony, call it bitter or sweet, is that it was in their final resting place that they were all welcome.