The dead come to life – so to speak – this weekend in the award-winning 21st annual “Tales of the Tombstones” historical cemetery walk, which takes place in Forest Home/German Waldheim Cemetery, 863 S. Desplaines Ave., on Oct. 21, starting at 1 p.m.

Costumed characters bring historical stories to life along the winding green paths of the cemetery, which houses thousands of Chicago-area deceased – and has room for many more.

The themed history walk is sponsored by the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest. It was started in 1991when Forest Park Historical Society’s then-president, Dr. Frank Orland, asked for help restoring the decaying obelisk monument of Ashbel Steele, an early River Forest pioneer.

“We try to give visitors the history but make it interesting and entertaining too,” said OP-RF historical society past president Laurel McMahon, who has been volunteering for the walk since 1997.

Even Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderone has performed in the event, portraying one of the founding fathers of the village of Harlem (the former name of Forest Park).

McMahon’s two daughters have been fans of the walk since they first visited at age 8 and 9. “I took them and the whole tour enthralled them,” McMahon recalled. “One of the charms of the tour is that kids can appreciate it.”

Now the girls portray characters every year in costumes that McMahon herself sews. “My girls have ‘died’ in the most gruesome ways for the Historical Society,” she quipped, “from serial killer victims, to the Iroquois Fire to disease victims.”

This year’s visitors will meet Joey Sternaman, the first quarterback of the Chicago Bears, circa 1926, said Frank Lipo, the OP-RF historical society’s executive director.

Visitors will also hear the tragic stories of local Eastland Ship Disaster survivors from 1915. They will see the Tiffany-designed obelisk of E.A. Cummings, local 1920s real estate bigwig, who developed the Forest Park neighborhood he called “Spotless Town” between Harlem and Desplaines and Jackson and Hannah. Visitors will also meet some of the historic heroines of the American labor movement, who were buried by request near the Haymarket Monument, including labor agitator Emma Goldman and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“There’s interest in labor issues this year because of the Chicago Teacher’s Union strike,” said Lipo.

To celebrate the Park District of Oak Park’s 100th anniversary, they will meet the far-sighted visionaries who saw the importance of green space and parks in a developing community in 1912, including the Oak Park men for whom Rehm and Lindberg parks are named.

“We decided in honor of the 100th anniversary we would feature the people who developed parks and recreation for the area. These people were here when the Forest Preserves were founded,” said McMahon “E.A. Cummings donated the space at Lake and Harlem where his offices were located to the Forest Preserve and left money for a monument of their choosing.” The result was the classical-style band shell on the corner, built in the 1920s.

This article was updated to correct the spelling of Laurel McMahon’s name.

The actors who portray the yearly Tales of the Tombstones historical figures are a varied bunch. Some have little acting experience but enjoy the dress-up, and some are seasoned actors.

All must journey inside the minds of the historical figures they represent to tell a tale from the past.

Actor Glenn Braun has been performing for the annual cemetery walk for half-a-decade and has portrayed everyone from Haymarket martyrs to an Illinois governor (John Peter Altgeld) who pardoned the martyrs and destroyed his political career. Last year he played Albert Parsons, the husband of labor figure Lucy Parsons.

This year, Braun plays Rudolph Stork, an ordinary Forest Parker and machinist at Western Electric who survived the tragic Chicago Eastland ship disaster.

In July of 1915, Stork brought his two children, a son and daughter to attend what he thought would be a company pleasure cruise and picnic.

His script tells the tale:

“Suddenly the steamship took on a sharp list to port. It just tipped over and capsized, lying on its side in the mud. We were thrown into the water and I was screaming and struggling, looking for my children. It was deafening and I was helpless, even though we were only yards from the dock.”

Braun, a New York transplant who acts in local theater, said his character will be dressed for a merry afternoon picnic with “a natty summer suit, a late summer suit, with a boater straw hat and a bowtie,” said Braun.

As an actor preparing for the role, Braun said he was struck by the conflict between grief after losing a child and relief at surviving, which his character must portray. There were 67 burials after the Eastland disaster in Forest Home cemetery that week in July 1915.

“Rudolph Stork was able to save one of his kids,” he said. “Then he had to go and find his daughter. He spotted her in the morgue in the old armory where Harpo Studios are now.”

Braun is a regular Lincoln impersonator and member of the Abe Lincoln Presenters Association. He also performs a 90-minute one-man show as Charles Dickens reciting “A Christmas Carol.”

Tales of the Tombstones is a production that comes together at the last minute, with actors jumping into roles. “You never know what you’re going to end up with. You have to think on your feet,” he said.

Oak Parker Michael D. Stewart has played about a dozen different roles during his time being involved with the cemetery walk. This year he plays the part of Colonel Arthur Rehm.

Stewart said playing this part is challenging because it’s out of his comfort zone, but he loves getting into character and learning the history through a script. He’s learned that Rehm was involved in the Spanish American War in 1898 and the Illinois National Guard along the Mexican border in 1916.

He also served active duty in World War I, so Stewart will be sporting a World War I uniform.

“Anyone could learn it in just a textbook, but to go out and see people telling about their lives in this fashion, it really brings life to Oak Park history,” Stewart said.

He said he admired that Rehm was part of a group of active citizens who started the park district from scratch in 1912. Rehm, like Stewart, was a resident of South Oak Park, and believed that park amenities should be available in all sections of the village.

Stewart said he’s been practicing his dialogue with neighbor Roger Lindberg, another cemetery actor and a descendant of the former park district superintendent and commissioner Gustaf Lindberg.

-Jean Lotus and Devin Rose

A grave matter

It’s a spooky fascination this time of year, but “Tales of the Tombstones” master docent Laurel McMahon has always been a fan of cemeteries in general, ever since she visited Concordia Cemetery with her German-descended parents growing up.

“You can see how gravestones reflect a culture,” McMahon said.

A unique business model was the special thing about German Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park when it began in the 1870s. “They were adamant that everyone was welcome,” she said.

That’s one of the reasons the cemetery holds so many interesting people – from “Oddfellows” to Druids. Freemasons were permitted to include masonic symbols on their monuments. The “Haymarket Martyrs” were hastily buried as social pariahs (later their beautiful monument was created and placed in Forest Home). Waldheim was among the only cemeteries that welcomed Roma (aka Gypsy) burials in the Midwest for many decades. The cemetery became very popular with immigrants.

Influenza victims and casualties from the Iroquois Theater fire (1903) and the Eastland Disaster (1915) are buried here, as well as convicted serial killers such as Belle Gunness, nicknamed “Lady Bluebeard,” who allegedly murdered 30 people, including women, children and several lonely Norwegian bachelors. Adolph Leutgert, the Chicago “Sausage Vat Killer” is also buried at Forest Home.

The cemetery also holds baseball-preacher Billy Sunday. The third of Elizabeth Taylor’s seven husbands, Michael Todd is buried here, as well as Prairie architect William Gray Purcell, modern dancer Doris Humphrey and Joseph and Betty Kettlestrings, Oak Park’s earliest settlers. Forest Park founders Minnie and Ferdinand Haas and Ernest Hemingway’s parents and grandparents can also be found here.

The cemetery was founded in the 1860s when Chicago placed a ban on graveyards within the city limits for public health reasons. Forest Home was built on a sand-bar near the Des Plaines River, which elevated the land, keeping the graves out of the swamps, said McMahon. “It was the furthest edge of the prehistoric Lake Chicago that reached all the way out to Forest Park.”

Forest Home/German Waldheim combined into one entity in the late 1960s. The grounds tell the story of cemetery design through the past two centuries, said McMahon. Across the Des Plaines River is “the ‘memorial park’ trend that started in California, more like a golf course, where tombstones became very uniform,” she said. Much has changed over the decades, including the removal of the majestic entrance gates.

“They were not big enough to accommodate modern vehicles,” said McMahon.

The economic history of Forest Park and River Forest were deeply dependent on the cemeteries, she pointed out.

“Up and down Madison Street there were inns and restaurants for post-funeral dinners. There were monument companies and florists all along Desplaines Avenue.”

The cemetery went into receivership in the 1970s due to poorly performing investments of trust money. “There was a lack of regulation of cemeteries in general nationwide,” said MacMahon. When that happened, the cemetery iron fencing was removed and the grounds became overgrown. “There was waist-high grass and people were doing things they shouldn’t on the cemetery grounds,” she said.

A private company now owns the combined Forest Home/German Waldheim. “They’re wonderful to work with and they really support visitors and our tour every year.”

Today, the cemetery still hosts ethnic burials. “I’m so delighted to see more people visiting the cemetery. The Hispanic and African-American headstones and traditions are fantastic with computer engraving techniques on granite headstones,” she said. There’s even a headstone for a couple who are not yet deceased containing a solar-powered video screen that replays scenes from their lives.

McMahon loves to read epitaphs, which were not popular in the Midwest until recently.

“I’m a great fan of the epitaph tradition,” she said, noting that some of the Tales of the Tombstones docents have tossed around the idea of buying a little group plot of their own. She’s told her husband that she’s got her own epitaph already composed:

“Enjoy the cemetery and visit me often.”

“Cemeteries are for the living,” McMahon insists. “You wouldn’t erect a beautiful monument if you didn’t expect people to visit.”

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...