Good luck if you are trying to find the Altenheim Cemetery. For most people in Forest Park the final resting place of 800 to 900 people is out of sight and out of mind.
Located about 50 yards from the Altenheim campus, part of which is presently being demolished, and immediately east of Concordia Cemetery, the Altenheim Cemetery is screened by trees and underbrush from the entrance to the Prairie Path just west of the Blue Line terminal and is not marked with any signage. Only a deteriorating paved path from the Altenheim buildings gives any hint of its existence.
Erased from the memory of most Forest Park residents is not only the cemetery but also the mostly German residents buried there. Folks who are able to find the final resting place of the early residents of the Altenheim German Old People’s Home will these days find the grass mowed and the gravestones upright, but it wasn’t always that way.
A massive cleanup of the site was conducted about 15 years ago, according to John Rice, a Review columnist who participated in the project organized by Rich Vitton who was then president of Forest Park Historical Society.
Marty Farmer, whose byline appeared in a Review article dated Sept. 4, 2007, reported that Anthony Calderone, who was then mayor, and volunteers filled 80 garbage bags of refuse and truckloads of chipped wood.
The small cemetery is cleaner and safer now, but you won’t find any flowers left by family members on the graves. According to Farmer’s reporting, the cemetery closed in the 1980s which means it’s been about 40 years since anyone was newly buried there and therefore no next of kin are left to remember their loved ones by visiting.
Nevertheless, Augie Aleksy said that the little burial ground should be kept on our community’s radar screen because of its historical value. A member of the Historical Society of Forest Park and owner of Centuries and Sleuths bookstore, Aleksy called it a “living physical resource for local history.”
Ralph DiFebo noted that when the Village of Forest Park bought the 11-acre Altenheim property for $3.6 million in 2001, he checked out the plat of survey and it did not include the cemetery. He believes the Altenheim senior facility still owns it.
Kirk Carpenter, general manager of Concordia Cemetery, confirms the property is owned by the Altenheim senior living facility.
“The cemetery is a piece of Forest Park history that many residents of the village do not know about,” DiFebo said. “However, I have had some discussions with members of the Forest Park Historical Society and Kiwanis club about developing a new trail head for the Prairie Path. Perhaps it could be recognized in the trail head or in the Cultural Park when either of those assets are developed.
Farmer’s article in 2007 reveals how the cemetery is just one example of how the Altenheim was self-sufficient. For years after the old folks home opened in 1885 it kept pigs, chickens, and cows to help feed its residents. And, it had its own cemetery where the old folks would be buried.
If the cemetery looks a bit like a paupers’ graveyard, it’s because, according to historical archival documents, “residents were required to sign over whatever wealth they had to the Altenheim upon being approved as a member” in exchange for having all their needs taken care of while still alive.
Most of the head “stones” are therefore uniform and were made right at Altenheim of cement. All that had to be changed in the mold was the name of the deceased, the date of birth and the date the resident had died. The mold had the heading HIER RUHT which is German for “here rests.”
According to documents from the historical society, “Persons accepted to the Altenheim had to have at least 3 years residence in Cook County, be over 60 years old, be incapable of further employment, and have no chronic or other conditions that would prevent the individual from taking care of him or herself. A one-time fee was charged according to age: 60-65 years $300, 65-70 $250, 70-75 $200 and over 75 $150.”
Many of the roots of Forest Park go back to the huge migration between 1820 and World War I, during which time nearly six million Germans immigrated to the United States. People of German ancestry comprise the largest percentage of transplants to this country from Europe.
Inscribed on the façade of the main building words which reveal how vulnerable those new arrivals to this area felt: “DEUTSCHES HAUS IM NEUEN LAND SCHIRM ES GOTT MIT STARKER HAND. That is for “German house in a new land. May God protect it with a strong hand.”