Woodlawn Funeral Home and Memorial Park is gaining a reputation for hosting happy events, in addition to the sad ones. Woodlawn celebrated a century in business on Sept. 15. Attending the celebration were State Representative Lisa Hernandez and Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderone. Lunch was served, prizes raffled and cake cut.
Such festivities might seem out of place in a cemetery, but Woodlawn is reinventing itself with the intention of better serving the community.
Upbeat occasions at the cemetery include the observance of “Clown Week” on Aug. 5. Members of the West Suburban Clown Club arrived at the cemetery, without makeup and transformed themselves. (This wasn’t all good, as one of Woodlawn’s employees is scared of clowns.)
“Public Servant Appreciation Day” on Sept. 7 treated policemen, firemen and public works employees from Forest Park, North Riverside and Riverside to a cookout. The Woodlawn Walk for the American Diabetes Association was held on Sept. 22. The cemetery is a staunch supporter of the ADA, and all proceeds from the anniversary raffle went to that organization.
Woodlawn is best known for its “Showmen’s Rest,” a mass grave of 53 circus performers, watched over by statues of brooding elephants. But Woodlawn’s modern amenities also make it part of the fabric of Forest Park. It’s the village’s only cemetery featuring a state-of-the-art funeral home, mausoleum and crematorium.
General Manager Valerie Czerwien pointed out that it’s also Forest Park’s “newest” cemetery. It covers 94 acres and contains 56,000 graves. But burial space is not a problem. “We still have plots for the next hundred years,” Czerwien said, “though we’re seeing a lot more cremations. There’s been a 27 percent increase.” She believes this is driven by cost and the fact that families are getting away from the traditional funeral.
“The two-day wake is a thing of the past,” Czerwien said. “Funerals and wakes have become ‘celebrations of life.’ The spirit of ceremonies is changing.”
They also love the ease Woodlawn offers. Bereaved families have so many arrangements to make: the wake, funeral, burial and luncheon. Woodlawn can take some of the pain out of this process by hosting all of these events in one
Another part of Woodlawn’s appeal is its park-like setting. “Families come to walk the grounds. We get joggers. It’s a very peaceful place.”
Diane Hansen, executive director of the Historical Society of Forest Park, helped “dig up” the history of the cemetery. She brought articles, brochures and photos from the collection. She also loaned the book, “No Performances Today,” which chronicles the fiery train crash that killed the victims buried at “Showmen’s Rest.”
Showmen’s Rest, remains the cemetery’s biggest draw. “We have an increase in crowds every year,” Czerwien said.