In terms of sheer size and splendor, the Altenheim Cemetery pales in comparison to the ornate cemetery "parks" like Forest Home, Jewish Waldheim and Woodlawn dotted along Desplaines Avenue in Forest Park.
Ironically, that's part of the inherent charm of the intimate Altenheim burial ground, a historical treasure in a town that holds great reverence for its past. Ensconced in a grove of trees about 50 yards behind the Arborwood and Briarwood at Altenheim home for seniors, the Altenheim Cemetery permeates a paradoxical feeling of privacy for its residents past and present, yet is a compelling curiosity for visitors.
Altenheim, which opened in 1885 serving as a retirement community for the extensive German population in Chicagoland, provided an attractive living option for seniors. It quickly became a self sufficient community taking care essentially of the all residents' needs and concerns, including funeral arrangements with its private cemetery.
"People came from the Altenheim of Chicago, which was an organization at that time, as well as other Germans in the area," Rich Vitton, president of the Forest Park Historical Society said. "At the time, people who came to Altenheim would give everything they had in terms of their finances in exchange for medical services, meals, bedding, and hospitalization. When a person passed away, the burial was at Altenheim."
Vitton estimated the cemetery has between 800 and 900 headstones, the majority of them being institutional concrete markers with a uniform design, which were actually made by the staff. Former Altenheim superintendent Karl R. Moeller is buried on the grounds.
The headstones were fairly primitive in design but remarkably sturdy. A few of the newer granite monuments were made by professional stone cutters.
A common phrase on the markers is "HIER RUHT," which is German for "Here Rests." The concrete cast in box forms featured moveable letters, which explains why a reversed letter or transposed spelling is evident on some of the headstones.
"They would use a mold, pour cement into it, and then imprint the name and date of birth," Vitton said. "The stones were a combination of brick on the inside, which served as a stiffening agent to keep the stone in place as well as concrete on the exterior. Some of the headstones collapsed over time as the ground moved coupled with the deterioration of the pine coffins and bodies. The stones sometimes can literally topple, but considering many of them are from the 1800s, they are in great condition."
While the cemetery, which closed back in the 1980s, is in relatively good shape, there have been issues on the road to historical preservation. Working in concert with the Chicago Genealogical Society, Mayor Anthony Calderone, Comptroller Dan Hynes, area residents and other volunteers, Vitton helped "clean out" the previously shabby burial ground.
Three truckloads of chipped wood and 80 garbage bags of refuse later, the collaborative effort produced a markedly cleaner, safer cemetery.
"I'll just say it was a noisy week but we did it," Vitton said. "Once we finished the refurbishing of the cemetery, Channel 32 did a show about it. People who have relatives and friends buried [at Altenheim] came out in droves. One couple was crying and thanked us because now they could come and see their family."
Another issue the Chicago Genealogical Society helped resolve was the daunting task of accurately identifying all the markers. The markers, which run in rows from south to north, have all been categorized by inscription and location in a booklet created by the CGS.
"The last few years, The Chicago Genealogical Society has been able locate 14 undocumented stones," Vitton said. "Nobody knew that the stones existed, but we suspect the bodies were cremated since the stones run together in close proximity along the fence line."
Interestingly enough, the Forest Home Cemetery also helped clarify one open row of the grounds that was thought to possibly have more bodies. Using a sounder rod, which plunges into the ground to literally feel if there are any bones in the designated area, no additional bodies were discovered. With the aid of maps, it was determined a sewer line ran through that part of the cemetery.
As much as a cemetery may carry morbid connotations, Vitton and Altenheim Director Gayle Fahey see the sacred ground as a testament to the rich history of Altenheim anchored by the spirit of its residents.
"I think it's important to Altenheim and the people associated with this community to preserve the history of this place," Fahey said. "We have the original logs of Altenheim and it's incredible to think this was such a self sufficient community. It was and still is a great place to live."
In its early days, Altenheim had its own menagerie of animals for farming purposes. Pig pens, chicken coops, and cows were just part of the active landscape not to mention a one lane bowling alley, windmills and a merry-go-round used for social gatherings.
After the Altenheim Cemetery opened, public cemeteries known for their park-like design with winding roads, obelisk monuments, and intricate marble angels, soon followed. The Concordia, Forest Home, Jewish Waldheim and Woodlawn cemeteries were conceived in this style. Famously, the Jewish Waldheim is where Michael Todd, Elizabeth Taylor's ex-husband, is buried.
And yet, for all the special memories associated with each of these cemeteries, the Altenheim Cemetery is recognized as the first and arguably most intriguing cemetery in Forest Park.