“The problem is overwhelming,” said David Penzell, director of operations at Waldheim Cemetery Co. He was referring to the devastation of the cemetery’s trees by the emerald ash-borer and Dutch elm disease. “We took down 45 trees in one section alone. We’re taking down 27 trees next week.” Tree blight is destroying the tranquility of the 150-acre cemetery and it’s only going to get worse.

Removing these diseased trees from a cemetery tightly packed with monuments is a logistical nightmare. It’s also a huge unexpected expense for Waldheim. “These trees are a danger to employees, mourners and visitors,” Penzell declared. “People come here for peace and meditation. They want to see living things, trees in bloom. They don’t want to see the ugliness of death in a tree.”

“Trees comfort mourners,” he continued. “They provide shade.” Referring to many dead trees visible from Desplaines Avenue, he observed, “This is not the image you want to portray to those visiting or driving by. We work so hard to make this a place of comfort. We’re waiting to see what’s going to happen in the fall.”

Before it became a cemetery, the property had been a farm, largely cleared of trees. A photo from Waldheim’s earliest days shows saplings planted in rows. These are now mature trees. Families also contributed to the forest at Waldheim [which means “Forest Home” in German]. “A family might have planted a seed in their section. Seventy years later, you have a seven-story tree with a massive trunk. Their roots disturb the monuments.” 

Now these towering trees are unsightly in their diseased state. Their trunks are rotted and they shed branches and bark each time a storm sweeps through.

“Every time it rains, we have to pick up debris from the trees,” Penzel said. “The problem was getting bad before. Now it’s exploded.” Cleaning up fallen branches is another financial drag on the cemetery. “We have 25 working in maintenance. They can’t mow the lawn due to branches and bark all over.”

Penzell has no idea how many trees have been taken down or how many more will have to go. “We mark them with paint and a number,” he explained. “We’re tackling it section by section.” 

There are 288 such sections in Waldheim. The dead and dying trees make holding funerals problematic, especially Orthodox burials.

“I can get a call for a same-day funeral,” Penzell noted. “When an Orthodox person dies, they can be buried at 4 p.m. that day.” In these emergencies, Penzell calls Brian at County Line Tree Service. “They’ve done a wonderful job. There may be a dead tree blocking the path to the grave and they’ll remove it.”

Penzell admires his “tree guys.” 

“The trees are not easy to access,” he noted. “They have to climb the tree and take it down piece by piece. There’s so much congestion with the granite monuments, they do very planned-out removals. Watching their crew is like a finely-choreographed ballet. They’re cutting and lowering branches with ropes, taking down the trunk they’re holding onto.”

Waldheim has planted few replacements. “We want to give the ground a rest first,” he explained, “We can’t plant where a former tree stood. We communicate with members of the section to see how many trees they want and where. We don’t put in the same exact trees. We can’t have trees that spread roots. We need to plant hearty trees with tap roots.”

Waldheim will not repeat the problems of the past, planting rows and rows of the same species. “We planted some miniature pear trees. They have beautiful colors and have held up well.” 

Apart from the dying trees, the most distressing sight Penzell has seen this summer was lightning striking a perfectly healthy tree. Following an incredible flash of light, the thriving tree was split in half. “Why couldn’t it have hit one of the dead ones?” he lamented. 

This tree will also have to be removed by Brian Mijic and his crew from County Line Tree Service. The foreman said they’ve had contracts with the cemetery for the last seven years. 

“They show us the trees that have to go and we bid the job. We number the tree and give a price for each one.” They took down 40 in 2014 and 78 so far in 2015. They recently removed 45 trees from Section 36 and 30 more from Section 37. The only trees left standing in these sections are a few scattered pines.

Mijic stated that the ash-boring beetle was first spotted in Michigan in 2002. In 2006, the beetles reached Chicago. “There are 12,000,000 ash trees dying in the Chicago area,” he said. “Dutch elm is still claiming trees.” Cutting down trees at Waldheim is very dangerous work. “The roads are very narrow, so we can’t use our crane. We have to use ropes and hands.”

Maneuvering around massive monuments to take down trees that are 50-70 years old is very time-consuming. “It takes us 45 minutes on a parkway tree,” he noted, “It takes 4-5 hours per tree in the cemetery. They are 50-60 feet high and very unsafe to climb, especially if they’ve been dead for several years. Next year, we’re using a special lift to take them down.”

Mijic explained that ash-boring beetles invade the space between the bark and the hardwood. They bore D-shaped holes that are 1/8th-inch deep. These holes effectively cut off the tree’s “circulation” so that water cannot flow to the top. “Half the canopy dies in the first year. The tree fights to survive with new growth at the bottom to suck up water. It dies during the next two years.”

The tree dies from the inside out. Cut off from water, its trunk becomes 50-100% rotten. After the tree is dead, the beetles can fly up a half mile to find a fresh victim. Mijic explained that the rotten logs are taken away to recycling places in McCook and Lemont to be ground into mulch. “They can’t be used for construction,” he said.

With the tree gone, Mijic and his crew are not finished. “We use stump-grinders that go down 15 inches.” These machines also pulverize the roots. “Our big stumper we use on the parkways takes about 10-15 minutes. The small machine we use in the cemetery takes 45 minutes to an hour.” Mijic is sympathetic that this is costing the cemetery a lot of money. They haven’t discussed replacement trees yet.

Mijic is a devoted tree lover. “Trees give us oxygen,” he said. “Without trees there is no life.” His favorite tree is the willow but he is also partial to maples. When they do replace the fallen trees at Waldheim, they will limit each species to 20 percent of all the saplings, to prevent a future epidemic. 

Mijic noted that an ash tree can be saved by early detection. But it is very expensive and too late for the trees that once provided Waldheim Cemetery with its soothing green canopy. 

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.

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