Hordes of the living jammed Beloit Avenue on a picturesque Saturday morning as the village awoke from a 19-month slumber to celebrate Halloween in distinctly Forest Park style at the ninth annual Casket Races, hosted by the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce and Development.
The event, a nod to the village’s many cemeteries and their thousands of dead residents, was canceled in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic raged, and Saturday’s gathering felt like a coming-out party for living residents who had endured countless disruptions and cancellations since last March. As always, the costumes were clever and the caskets were rolling, but it was the crowd that stole the show.
Laurie Kokenes, the chamber’s executive director said this year’s event boasted “for absolute sure” a record turnout, with as many has 1,000 people lining the full block of curbs and sidewalks several bodies deep. And the hundreds of costumed girls, boys and grown-ups stayed downtown after the racing was over, trick-or-treating down Madison Street and filling area restaurants.
“It’s a big part of the reason we do these events,” Kokenes said. “If we can bring people to Forest Park, to see the businesses that are here and patronize the businesses, that is a win-win. … We couldn’t have had a better day.”
“It was really nice to see the community together,” Mayor Rory Hoskins, who rode in a casket pushed by the four village commissioners in addition to conducting his mayoral duties Saturday, said. “It’s just another example of how we can all partner together; the business community, the advocates for the business community. It was just a really nice community event.”
Hoskins was making his debut as a casket race participant, riding in the village’s Steeple Chase casket, designed in homage to the long-shuttered Forest Park Amusement Park. The ride itself, however, was a slow one, with Commissioner Ryan Nero quip ping to the crowd as the casket walked along that, “government doesn’t move fast.”
The rest of the 16-casket field drew from a wide array of pop-culture and local-interest themes, like a rolling hot dog titled, Never Ketchup; a Carole Baskin-led Tiger King casket with the eponymous Tiger King, Joe Exotic, riding inside; and coffins inspired from across the film spectrum, including “Dodgeball,” “Ghostbusters,” “The Addams Family” and “101 Dalmatians,” among others.
“I think the creativity was over-the-top this year,” Kokenes said. “It was just fabulous.”
As for the racing itself, most caskets sped the 585 feet from start to finish, although a handful of teams opted to “race” for dead last, with a few placating the crowd by tossing goodies toward the curbs.
After two heats, it was the Addams Family-inspired team that secured the coveted dead-last honor with a time of nearly two minutes. Meanwhile, the Park District of Forest Park claimed the top prize with a second-heat time of 19.87 seconds. Forest Park Public Works took second and the Forest Park Police Department, also a first-time entrant, was third.
The Frighteningly Funny honor went to Never Ketchup — whose hot dog casket, ridden by a sport pepper and topped by a dash of celery salt, was piloted by a tomato, pickle and mustard, but, of course, not its tomato-based cousin — while team Dead Last and its elaborate Max Max-ian design earned Creepiest Casket.
The chamber also awarded a top house party honor this year, recognizing the many neighbors who have turned the Casket Races into an annual excuse to get together on their front lawn, giving the trophy to Nell Reisner and John Hogan.
In the aftermath of the unprecedented success of Saturaday’s races, Kokenes said the resulting feelings are a mix of relief and satisfaction.
“You’re not sure when you’re planning an event. Businesses have had a tough time over the last I don’t know how many months,” she said. “Getting the competition, getting the audience, the generosity of sponsors … we’re just looking forward to getting back on track with everything.”
“We’re back rocking and rolling instead of trying to reinvent everything.”