An iconic pillar, which used to stand sentinel at the west end Greenberg Road – the street that forms the southern border of the Jewish Waldheim’s Cemetery — toppled on Sept. 23, 2017. But the cemetery suffered a much greater loss two months earlier, on July 26.
That is when its human pillar of strength, Irwin Lapping, passed away. Lapping spent 64 years running the sprawling 200-acre burial ground.
“The smartest, nicest and most ethical person I have ever worked for,” said David Penzell, who succeeded Lapping in the post.
It was Lapping, who rescued the cemetery from ruins and dragged it into the 21st Century.
Lapping was born into the cemetery business. In the 1930s, his grandfather, Ansel Liebowitcz, founded Menorah Gardens Cemetery in Broadview. Lapping briefly worked in the cemetery’s office on 17th Avenue, across the street from Target. In 1953, he became involved with Jewish Waldheim Cemetery.
And what he saw was a reclamation project.
“The cemetery was patterned after the European model,” Lapping said in a 2012 interview. “It was crowded, congested and very difficult to maintain. It was an overgrown, neglected cemetery. They planted trees that crowded the cemetery when they matured.
“Operating it was becoming a liability. Its records were on index cards and scraps of paper; some were in Yiddish.”
Lapping took on the staggering task of maintaining and modernizing the cemetery.
Jewish Waldheim Cemetery had originally been a thriving operation. Its founding in the early 1870s coincided with the birth of Forest Park.
This was a time of mass migration of Jews from Europe to the U.S. Many of these immigrants settled on the West Side of Chicago. They joined synagogues and lodges and started cemeteries.
Jewish Waldheim Cemetery is not a single cemetery, but an association of over 200 cemeteries. It is the largest Jewish burial ground in the Chicago area, with more than 175,000 burials.
In his 2012 interview, Lapping recalled many Jewish organizations offered death benefits and burial expenses to their members.
“These organizations thrived and were very active,” he said. “They bought cemetery property and sublet the lots to members.”
To maintain these graves, several caretaking companies came into existence. They performed funerals and installed monuments.
“They took care of the graves, the trees and the sidewalks,” Lapping recalled, “They got paid on an annual basis.”
Over the years, though, Lapping said, “Organizations and families started to fade away. The graves deteriorated.”
An exodus of Jewish people from the West Side to the northern suburbs further added to the neglect. The caretakers were no longer being paid annually but continued to do what was necessary. Sometimes women came out to weed the graves by hand.
“My dad’s lifetime mission was to renovate the cemeteries,” said Lapping’s son, Shale. “He also wanted to consolidate and improve operations.”
To this end, Lapping acquired the caretakers and started a computer system for record keeping. The fact that many of the founding organizations were now defunct made his job especially challenging.
“He set up a trust fund that grew into one of the largest trust funds in Illinois,” Shale said. “He started a direct mail campaign to get survivors to step up and maintain the graves of their ancestors.”
It was a tough sell to get families, generations removed from the deceased, to pay for the upkeep of their graves.
“My dad had the patience of a saint,” his son, Paul, said. “If you didn’t get along with Irwin, it was your fault, not his.”
Lapping came to work six days a week.
“It was a hobby he got paid for,” said Paul. “It was like being the mayor of a small town.”
Gradually, the cemetery became more efficient and the money flowed in to meet the huge landscaping costs. Both sons helped out, as well as their mother, Judy.
“She did the clerical work,” Shale said, “and reviewed Hebrew inscriptions for accuracy.”
The cemetery kept all of its accounts at Forest Park National Bank. Lapping used these funds to purchase caretakers.
“He made a substantial investment,” Shale said. “He improved their landscaping equipment and started projects to update the cemetery.”
Lapping embraced new technology. He created a database for genealogy research. He also started a section for Jewish people who otherwise couldn’t afford a grave.
“The indigent have no problem being buried at Jewish Waldheim,” Shale said.
Lapping’s main mission remained finding family members who cared about their ancestors’ graves.
“He worked very hard at it,” Shale said. “It was a passion and he had a very high level of commitment. He made sure they stepped up. It became a movement.”
Lapping’s hard work paid off.
“The cemetery is viable again,” said Shale. “It’s very strong financially. It’s a success.”
In his 1980s, Lapping was still coming to the office twice a week and working out of his home. His beloved wife, Judy, died just before their 60th anniversary. Even at the age of 90, Lapping was forward thinking, insisting his staff buy smartphones.
When he fell ill, Lapping called Penzell and told him, “I need you to come visit me.”
Penzell was surprised to see Lapping sitting up talking in the intensive care unit at the hospital.
“We talked for over two hours,” he recalled. “We spent the last half hour arguing about the cemetery’s property insurance. It was a very lively conversation.”
Penzell told Lapping that he would see him again, but it wasn’t to be.
When Lapping was laid to rest at Jewish Waldheim Cemetery last summer, every worker stood in a line as a tribute to him.
“It was a beautiful moment,” Penzell said, “Irwin combined forces to keep up the cemetery. He was a gift.”
Penzell inherited Lapping’s title of executive director but can’t bring himself to occupy Lapping’s corner office. He still sees the spirit of Irwin Lapping alive. Penzell also plans to restore the fallen pillar that guarded Greenberg Road.
There’s another pillar, though, who can never be replaced.