Growing up among the gravestones

Bev Jagow recalls living on the grounds of Concordia Cemetery

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By John Rice

Columnist / Staff reporter

There's a special place to live in Forest Park. It boasts a spacious house, surrounded by acres of lush landscape. Though it's not far from the bustle of Madison Street, wildlife roam the property. The house has many neighbors, but they are very quiet and never disturb the residents. 

That's because the four-bedroom house is located inside Concordia Cemetery and it's where Bev Jagow spent her formative years. 

Jagow was 1 year old, when her father, Herman, was appointed the cemetery's general manager and moved with his wife, Evelyn, to Concordia. The year was 1942 and Herman Jagow would serve longer than any director, retiring in 1972. 

Though Jagow loved his job and made many improvements to the cemetery, it was demanding work, and he was on duty 24/7 for 30 years. Bev Jagow recalled that the transition to living in a cemetery was also difficult.  

"It was a challenge to live there," Jagow said. "I had play dates before there was such a thing." 

The only child didn't have the advantage of playing with kids on the block. Though she invited friends over, she learned to entertain herself. 

The brick English Tudor house had been built in 1932, the same year as Concordia's art deco administration building and it had its own challenges. 

"The house had mice all over the place," Jagow said, "They were in the walls. We fled the house one night and had to have the whole house cleared of mice." 

This was during their first month of residence and the mice never returned, though there were other critters creeping across their property. 

"Raccoons and possums were a pest," Jagow said, "But I also saw a red fox and pheasants. Now, the cemetery is full of deer."

There were also intruders of the human kind. 

"We had a dump along the river, where the homeless established a camp," Jagow said. "My dad didn't interfere with them. We once found one of them dead in the snow." 

These men didn't cause trouble, but some late-night intruders toppled tombstones. "Once an escaped patient from Madden broke our storm door," she said.

When the cemetery closed for the day, at 5 p.m., Jagow's father would drive through Concordia to make sure no stragglers were locked in. If he later spotted lights among the headstones, he would immediately call Forest Park police. 

Apart from these unwelcome visitors, it was an idyllic place to grow up. 

"There was no fence around the house and I could play outside without supervision," Jagow said.

However, she had to be wary of traffic, because Concordia was a busy place back then. In its heyday, the cemetery wasn't just dealing with vehicular traffic. 

"The Madison Street streetcar had a stop at Concordia," Jagow said. "The Chicago, Aurora & Elgin Railroad ran through the cemetery and had a special funeral car." 

The funeral car was discontinued but the commuter railroad continued to connect passengers to CTA trains, until it abruptly shut down on July 3, 1957. Its former right-of-way is now part of the Illinois Prairie Path.

In 1953, an even wider path was cut through Concordia to make way for the Eisenhower Expressway. The project took 8.8 acres from the cemetery and required the removal of 1,400 graves. 

"We hired extra help for the grave removal," Jagow said. "We had to notify all the plot owners. We found relatives for all but 12. The monuments had to be moved. It was all done in orderly fashion."

Most of the deceased were re-buried in Concordia. 

"It was a big deal," Jagow said. "It was the most graves moved in the history of the US."

The other "big deal" at the cemetery was when Jagow's father renovated the large greenhouse. 

"We sold decorative plants and fresh flowers for the graves," she said. "The majority of the customers were women, so my father cleaned it up and stocked it with gardening supplies. He hired a female cashier and greatly expanded the business."

Jagow's father tended to hire workers from St. John's Church, including dozens of high school and college students during the summer. One of the summer hires was Gary Neubieser. 

 "He was always at the house. He was like a brother to me," Jagow said.

Neubieser was such a part of the family that the Jagow drove to Fort Leonard Wood, in Missouri, to visit Gary when he was stationed there. After college, Neubieser took a permanent job at Concordia Cemetery. Years after her father retired, Neubieser took over as general manager. He revived the cemetery's tradition of celebrating Memorial Day. 

"We used to have big crowds on Memorial Day," Jagow recalled, "There would be a 21-gun salute and they placed flags on the military graves." 

The cemetery wasn't just busy on holidays. On some days there were two or three funerals, and for each procession, the cemetery's famous Deagan Tower played chimes. 

"My friends would have a moment of silence," Jagow said. "I took them on tours of the cemetery. My friends got a kick out of visiting." 

That's because Jagow's family offered amusements, besides strolling through 82,000 graves. Although Jagow didn't consider the cemetery to be a "spooky" place, it was the ideal spot for a Halloween party. They literally played "Ghost in the Graveyard," scaring the younger kids.  

There was a sledding hill they enjoyed in the winter and a toboggan they would hitch to the back of the Jeep. Jagow's father made it clear, though, that Concordia wasn't for recreation. 

"Concordia Cemetery was for honoring the dead." Jagow said. "I was not allowed to ride my bike through the cemetery."

When she wasn't exploring the acreage, Jagow was attending classes at St. John Lutheran School and then at Walther Lutheran High school and secretarial school. She then spent 42 years working in the insurance business, retiring as a broker from Aon Insurance.  

As for Neubieser, he's still at Concordia. He was 14 years old when he started working at the cemetery, and he credited the Jagows with teaching him mechanics and how to repair equipment. 

He had to leave his job, temporarily, in 1967, when he was drafted and sent to Vietnam. When he returned from the service, Herman Jagow gave him his old job back. 

When he became manager, Neubieser tore down the greenhouses, because it was cheaper to buy flowers than grow them. He has now been working at the cemetery for 58 years. 

"I've enjoyed all of my years working here," he said, "I've made unhappy customers into friends." 

At the age of 72, Neubieser is considering retirement. When he leaves, it will be someone else's turn to live in Forest Park's special place.

 

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