For most of us, Halloween is time for the living. Holiday parades, trick-or-treating and kids in costumes dot the western suburbs in October.

This year, Forest Park is capitalizing on its claim to fame: celebrating the non-living residents within its village boundaries. With five major graveyards in the village, Forest Park has long recognized that dead inhabitants outnumber the living thirty to one. In the spirit of paying homage to this statistic, the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce and Development and the historical societies of both Oak Park and River Forest and Forest Park have planned three October events which aim to let the living celebrate the dead in ways that are both fun and educational.

Tales of the Tombstones cemetery walk

On Oct. 20, the Oak Park River Forest Historical Society will present its 22nd annual Tale of the Tombstones Cemetery Walk. The walk will give visitors a chance to take guided tours of the Forest Home and German Waldheim Cemeteries in Forest Park. As in years past, costumed presenters bring to life former area inhabitants. This year, the tour’s theme is “Survivor!” Instead of focusing on interesting deaths, as has been done in past years, the focus is on those who lived to tell the tale of harrowing experiences.

Past-president of the Historical Society and tour coordinator Laurel McMahon thinks the twist will offer a different perspective to participants. “This year is a much different take on the stories we usually tell. We often focus on famous residents and how they died. This year, we will cover people who have survived peril. From watery and fiery deaths, to someone sentenced to death who won an eleventh hour reprieve, to someone who was presumed dead but actually alive, we have some interesting stories to share.”

This year’s tour will include 6 ½ stops for presentations. McMahon notes that the half-stop is really two visitors to the tour that will honor local anniversaries. “This year is the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in Illinois, and many Oak Park women were instrumental in getting women the vote. It’s also the 100th anniversary of what is now the Oak Park Day Nursery, so we will hear about these historical moments as well.”

The award-winning event is a major fundraiser for the Historical Society, and McMahon notes that it gets better every year. “Our presenters are Historical Society volunteers. Some are professional actors and some are just very passionate about our history. They give high quality performances. This is the 22nd year we’ve been doing this tour, and as time goes on, people have become more professional in their roles.”

McMahon says this is more than just a cemetery walk. “It’s a fun tour. Not only are the presentations interesting, but our tour guides take you all around the cemetery and give you all kind of information. We want to move you to tears and laughter, but we hope you’ll take away more than just the presentations. We hope you’ll take away an understanding of just what a treasure the Forest Home Cemetery is.”

Tickets are $15 or $10 for Historical Society Members and can be purchased at the Historical Society’s website: . The walk takes place on Sunday Oct. 20, with a rain date of October 27th. The tour begins at 1 p.m and runs until 4 p.m.

Forest Park’s 2nd Annual Casket Race

The Forest Park Chamber of Commerce and Development is not just a bunch of business people who get excited talking about taxes and revenues. In fact, executive director Laurie Kokenes thinks this group is as far from fuddy-duddy as you can get, and she’s come up with the perfect Halloween activity to prove it. Inspired by an Emma Crawford coffin race she saw in Colorado years ago, Kokenes brought the idea of coffin racing to the western suburbs.

“When I saw it in Colorado, I thought: ‘this is so Forest Park.’ People like to different things and fun things here. People have good senses of humor, and with our history of having more dead people than alive in the village, I thought it’d be a great event.”

The first Casket Race took place last year on the Chamber’s 100th anniversary, and the success made doing it again a no-brainer. Locals, as well as local businesses, clamored to form groups of four, plus a steer-person, who would not only create their own artful casket but also race at breakneck speed down Beloit Avenue, competing for highly sought-after prizes.

Kokenes notes that last year’s trophies, created by American Family Insurance’s Liz Axtell, caused quite a frenzy among competitors. “Last year, we had prizes for the creepiest, coolest, funniest and fastest caskets. We had to have a coolest winner for Rick Schauer and Nadeau’s Ice Sculpture who created their team’s casket from ice. One team, Teachers of the Titanic, knew they weren’t in the running for fastest, so they went as slow as possible to get their hands on a trophy.”

The plan is to differ the trophies every year, and Kokenes hopes this year’s tombstone trophies will inspire the sixteen teams registered. For safety reasons, team members must be at least 18 years old, and just in case, the end of the course is lined in hay bales to slow down any casket that picks up a little too much speed. Residents of Beloit get into the action, decorating their houses, and music and food after the event will keep the spirit alive.

The event will take place on Saturday, Oct. 26th at 9 a.m., starting at the intersection of Beloit and Madison.

Historic Voices from the Graveyards of Forest Park

  When it comes to local historical society fundraisers, there are small-scale events and large-scale events. Forest Park Historical Society President Augie Aleksy thinks big. The owner of Forest Park’s Centuries and Sleuths Bookstore, Aleksy has long been captivated by Edgar Lee Master’s 1915 Spoon River Anthology. Inspired by the work and the wealth of stories from local cemeteries, he undertook an effort to create both an anthology and a performance work based on actual stories of people buried in Forest Park.

  Aleksy says the inkling of the idea first hit him in 2007.

  “During the Forest Park centennial, I volunteered to man the Historical Society booth, and while I was there, I was advised about all the cemeteries in Forest Park: how many there are, the differences and the people buried there. It was an enlightenment. I thought of the Spoon River Anthology, and thought it would be great to do with factual people.”

  Aleksy found local authors to contribute soliloquies based on the lives of those interred in Forest Park’s cemeteries, and gathered the soliloquies into a book. The roughly thirty tales are told in the first person, but are meant to be historical in nature. From the parents of Ernest Hemingway to Elizabeth Taylor’s husband Mike Todd to victims of the Eastland disaster and Iroquois Theater fire, the tales range from funny to poignant. According to Aleksy, “it’s a good cross cut of society in the Midwest.”

  Aleksy used his extensive contact list from the book store to reach out to local writers and was bowled over by the response. “I’m just so impressed with the people who agreed to work on this. It is a regional, literary work of art. I organized it, but everyone else brought it to life. It’s a perfect combination of history and literature.”

  Participating writers include Jay Bonansinga, a New York Times best-selling author, Chicago-area novelists Michael Black, Frances McNamara and Stephanie Keuhmert and local historians Robert Loerzel and Richard Lindberg. Emily Victorson edited the book for Allium Press, and Amy Binns-Calvey, founding member of The Noble Fool Theater Company, pulled together the dramatic performance.

  The event may be a fundraiser, but in the eyes of Aleksy, it’s so much more. “This event is meant to raise money for the historical society, but there’s no reason you can’t have fun while doing so.”

  An original play, adapted from pieces in the book and with original music by Forest Park’s History Singers will take place at the Park District of Forest Park’s building on Saturday, Oct. 26. Performances will take place at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at Centuries and Sleuths Bookstore or by calling the store at (708) 771-7243, through the Historical Society of Forest Park at (708) 232-3747 or on Tickets are $8 for Historical Society Members and $10 for non-members in advance and $15 at the door. Copies of the book will be available at the event and at Centuries and Sleuths.

3 replies on “October brings Forest Park cemeteries to life”