Lindsey Hankus had a genius idea when she suggested to her fellow firefighters that they hold their 5K fundraiser run scheduled for this Friday in Concordia Cemetery.

It’s perfect. No traffic. Winding lanes. Trees. A natural oasis in the middle of urban density. Green changing into gold. Birds singing as you run by.

And that got me to thinking that we—I mean the whole town—should begin thinking about our “grave situation” as an asset and resource instead of something we joke about or use in a game of Trivia. Take a look at Oak Park. They have capitalized on their equally dead celebrities, Earnest Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright. We’ve all seen the big tour busses turning onto Lake St. from Harlem.

Why can’t we do the same with our cemeteries? 

The Historical Societies get it. The Tales of the Tombstones cemetery walk sponsored by the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest, scheduled this year on Oct. 19 brings to life “residents” of the Forest Home and German Waldheim Cemeteries. This year they’re celebrating the end of the Civil War 150 years ago. Costumed presenters transform tombstones into living characters.

A website sponsored by the historical society talks about our cemeteries this way: “As the final resting place for Native Americans, early settlers, evangelists, gypsies, labor activists, and noted leaders in medicine, the arts, business, and transportation.” 

Think of the possibilities! We could get an Elizabeth Taylor look alike to visit Michael Todd’s grave … right on cue as the tour bus passes by. We could have evangelist Billy Sunday rise from his tomb to square off against anarchist Emma Goldman. And the possibilities with the circus train wreck victims are endless. We could have actors dressed as Native Americans and pioneers interacting on the banks of the Desplaines River … even have a canoe rental nearby if the river gets cleaned up enough. And, of course, the tour bus would have to swing by the gypsy graves. If we marketed the idea correctly, think of the possibilities.

The firefighters said that one reason Gary Neubeiser, the general manager of Concordia Cemetery, OKed the run is that the organizers assured him that the participants would respect the fact that they are running in the midst of remains of people who were loved in their day. When I talk about actors in costumes, I’m not thinking of creating cartoons to laugh at but recreating living, breathing historical figures whose stories can be very moving.

That’s what Augie Aleksy and members of the Historical Society of Forest Park did with the Desplaines River Anthology. The book was published last year and also adapted into a musical which premiered at the Park District. Again, picture the possibilities. Outdoor performances at the Altenheim in the summer. Dinner theater at one of Forest Park’s many gourmet restaurants with performances by a small group of actors.

The casket races are a more light-hearted approach to the dead and wisely are not held anywhere near the cemeteries. Again, think of the possibilities. Who would have thought that a game played with no gloves and an oversized 16″ softball would lead to Forest Park being the no gloves capital of the universe! Can’t you just see it now—the Casket Race Nationals!

And then there’s the wonderful nature smack dab in the center of our huge metropolitan area. The OPRF Historical Society website raved, “Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois, is one of the Chicago area’s most picturesque and historic cemeteries. The Des Plaines River cuts through the approximately 220-acre cemetery, and paved, curving roads divide it into landscaped subdivisions, where, as of 1998, over 188,000 people are interred.”

Think of the possibilities for bird watching alone. In the spring and in the fall, especially, the big migrations of birds from south to north in the spring and back to warmer climes in the fall include many birds not usually seen in this area. I have a friend who leads bird watching trips to Costa Rica. I need to tell him, “Hey, try our cemeteries, and then total up your bird count at one of our fine restaurants or taverns.

I’m not smart or creative enough to sweat all the details, but I can’t help dreaming that a mainly respectful, artistically creditable series of events in different locations, combined with a little comic relief like the casket races could become a real business opportunity for our town where the dead far outnumber the living, but the living have a chance to use the departed to make us a tourist destination.

And that brings me to the Altenheim. Not the newer wing, but the old original building is amazing. When I first came to town in 1982, I would visit people living in the old section. It was like time travel. I’m sure it would cost a trainload of money, but every cathedral began as a pile of stones and a dream.