When I started looking at houses in Forest Park, the goth phase of my late teens and early 20s was waning. I’d retired the ghostly white face powder and the black lipstick.
However, I must admit that though there were a myriad of practical reasons why I moved to Forest Park, it also appealed to me because it’s a city of cemeteries. Sure, I’m a little bit nervous about how we might fare if there’s a zombie uprising – according to Rich Vitton, president of the Historical Society of Forest Park, there are 597,000 dead “residents” compared to 15,000 living – but until that happens I plan to enjoy our cemeteries. After all, I’ve been hanging out in them since I was a teenager.
Maybe that sounds macabre, but it depends on the way you view cemeteries. I think of them as large parks where people pay tribute to their loved ones. Originally, cemeteries like Forest Home were designed as parks because traveling from Chicago to Forest Park to visit graves was a big trek, so people often picnicked there.
My high school friends and I spent most of our time hanging out in parks, but sometimes we hung out in cemeteries instead. We never, ever behaved in a disrespectful manner. Sure, the first time we visited Jewish Waldheim, we snuck in late at night and the point was to get some sort of thrill by scaring each other with ghost stories, but personally I felt a real sense of peace. I enjoyed wandering around, looking at the headstones and monuments. So many of them are hand-carved and ornate, it’s almost like visiting a sculpture garden. And as I recently learned, cemeteries are also the perfect place for a history lesson.
We do Halloween right in Forest Park, the way a city of cemeteries should. This year there was the Murder Mansion and two cemetery tours. The Tale of the Tombstones walk put on by the Oak Park and River Forest Historical Society is the biggest tour. I live right by Forest Home Cemetery, so I see all the cars that line up for that event. I attended the Forest Park Historical Society’s tour, led by Rich Vitton.
There weren’t costumed actors or hordes of people, but since I prefer intimate club performances to crowded arena rock shows, it was more my scene. I learned so many fascinating facts about our area. Forest Home is the only place locally where you can be buried no matter what you’ve done in life, hence Belle Gunness, famed female serial killer, lays in an unmarked grave there – or does she? It might actually be one of her victims! And I’d always marveled over the elaborately decorated graves along Desplaines Avenue. As it turns out, those are Gypsy graves and the Gypsies tend to them every Sunday. Further into the cemetery, members of the United American Order of Druids are buried in what looks like a mini-Stonehenge. But most impressive is that mound at the front bearing the Forest Home Cemetery name in cement letters. I thought the mound was part of the landscaping. Nope, it’s the only undisturbed Indian burial mound in the Chicago area.
Next year, I’ll definitely try to get my scare on at Murder Mansion and check out The Tale of the Tombstones, but I will most certainly be at Forest Home on the second Sunday of October for Mr. Vitton’s tour, and I’d highly recommend that all local history buffs join me.
Stephanie is the author of “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” and “Ballads of Suburbia.” She’s a proud Forest Parker who holds a master’s in fine arts degree from Columbia College Chicago. She also works locally at the Beacon Pub and loves to hear from people through her Web site www.stephaniekuehnert.com.