The theme of Halloween is death, a subject most don’t like to deal with except when making a charade of it, like placing Styrofoam gravestones in our front yards or holding casket races. Residents here joke about the town having 50 times as many dead residents as living ones.
But most of us visit those dead neighbors only when we are saying goodbye to a loved one or are driven there in a hearse. Cemeteries are associated with death, of course — a subject we tend to avoid.
Amy Binns-Calvey, however, loves going to Forest Home Cemetery for another reason. For her, it is a walk through American history. A leader of tours through Forest Home for five years, she pointed out how the gravestones “encapsulate all of the historical trends” in America.
For example, there is a statue of two little boys, both of whom died of diphtheria, a once widespread disease that was especially dangerous to children before a vaccine was invented in the 1920s. Another epidemic, the so-called Spanish Flu, killed over half a million Americans in the late 1910s.
“One of the themes repeated in the cemetery,” Binns-Calvey noted, “are the things that kill our youth.”
Binns-Calvey acknowledged that gravestones usually don’t state the cause of death, so they are not historically accurate in that sense, but when you see an increase in markers that reveal death at an early age, it is a concrete reminder of what we read in the history text books in high school.
What saddens her are the graves of so many children and young people who presumably died of diseases like consumption, cholera, flu and AIDS, which we now have either vaccines or medications to treat.
In the section west of the Des Plaines River are the graves of young men who have died in recent years, but also in their teens and 20s. Again, the cause of death is not noted on the tombstone, but the high number of graves of young men could testify to a modern epidemic of violence, Binns-Calvey said.
Binns-Calvey noted that violence is not just a 21st century phenomenon, either. Adam Heyer, for example, was a member of Chicago’s North Side Gang who was killed in 1929 in what has come to be known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The shootings were the result of a conflict between gangs run by mobsters George Moran and Al Capone, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Another reminder of persistent, ongoing violence in this country is the Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument which commemorates four labor leaders who were convicted and executed under dubious circumstances after a violent confrontation between police and workers in Chicago in 1886.
Binns-Calvey noted that the cemetery also documents some of the diversity in this country. For example, a section of Forest Home bordering Desplaines Avenue called Our Lady of Guadalupe is the final resting place of many local Latino residents.
The section reserved for members of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows recalls a time during the 19th and 20th centuries when Americans were joiners. According to a booklet published by the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest, almost half of all Americans belonged to fraternal organizations at one time.
The publication reports that, “The Independent Order of Odd Fellows was the first American fraternal order to offer its members financial relief benefits for sickness, burial of deceased members, and assistance to orphans.”
Less well known is a section, also along Desplaines Avenue, containing many Roma graves. Graves of groups even less well known are in sections for deceased members of the United Ancient Order of Druids, and the International Alliance of Bill Posters and Billers.
Binns-Calvey always has mixed feelings in response to what she sees in Forest Home. On the one hand her heart breaks at the loss she feels regarding what could have been for those who died too young.
On the other hand, “When you go, it gives you an opportunity to focus on what we have and the chance to realize how many challenges we’ve overcome in the past.”