Forest Park’s Casket Races are always a highlight of the village’s event calendar, but this year’s edition has long felt like it carried a little extra weight.

In the last however many months since COVID-19 arrived and shoved nearly everything off course, Forest Park has used its days not fretting over the virus to get bogged down in increasingly acrimonious battles over bad behavior, public safety, and finances, at a time when the whole country’s divisive nature is only getting worse.

There was hope before Saturday that the admittedly silly scene of Forest Parkers sprinting alongside garish death boxes would provide some measure of healing, a gross underthinking of the complex issues underlying any of our local or national tension, but still a testament to the optimism of those who wished for a day filled with smiles and laughter instead of bitterness and finger-pointing.

And for a few hours at least, the Casket Races did just that.

“We needed it,” Forest Park Chamber of Commerce and Development Laurie Kokenes said Tuesday morning. “I really think people wanted to have fun.”

Saturday was indeed what we needed — a chance to exhale deeply, then take a big, deep breath of fresh air, and not just because it happened to fall on a sunny summer-like October day.

Many of the hundreds, if not thousand-plus people who got together on Beloit Avenue recognized what happened there as a feeling both foreign and familiar. There were giggling children, gregarious adults and a sense of cheering for the same thing — the caskets to make us chuckle, we suppose? — that we very much had been missing. And there was the reality that people were standing, or sitting, shoulder-to-shoulder for one of the few times in recent memory, and doing it without immediately fretting over social distance, especially if you happened to be among the vaccinated in Saturday’s crowd.

It all felt normal, like something we’d done before, but couldn’t quite place precisely when or where that was. It was from the before-times, an oddly apt way to consider the intersection of life and death being mocked by the fast-moving coffins.

That is not to say, however, that the COVID-19 pandemic is over. It most assuredly is not. And it is also not to say that any of the woes plaguing our nation, or this village, should be ignored, no matter how easy that would be. It is dangerous and diminishing to act like the ills around us don’t exist because it soothes our conscience. There is great privilege in being able to laugh and smile while knowing some others are in pain.

But sometimes it is all right to forget for a moment, all right to allow a bit of joy and light to sneak through, and allow ourselves to re-center and recharge for whatever is to come. Our familiar, comfortable escapes — things like sports, books, movies and, yes, racing caskets — are good for the soul and rejuvenating at a time when it can sometimes feel like things are spiraling the other way.

So sure, racing caskets is kind of weird, and definitely silly, and not a
cure for all our ills. But it sure was nice to pretend.