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Chicago Eternal: A Sumptuous Tour of Historic Chicago Cemeteries

September 25, 2019

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Chicago Eternal: A Sumptuous Tour of Historic Chicago Cemeteries

There may be no better way to learn about a city’s history than by visiting its cemeteries. Few public institutions provide such breadth and depth of social and cultural layers, laid out like a geographic scroll across a city’s physical and temporal landscape. In Chicago Eternal, Larry Broutman takes the reader on a sumptuous visual tour of Chicago’s most historic cemeteries, giving us brief glimpses into a variety of historic moments. This hefty collection of photographs illuminates important people and events that shaped the character of Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods.

The book explores over thirty cemeteries, providing historic context alongside detailed, high-quality photographs of gravestones, memorials, and other notable features. Broutman excels at providing a wide-ranging picture of each cemetery, including the graves of everyday folks as well as prominent historical figures such as pioneering aviator Bessie Coleman, controversial Mayor Richard J. Daly, and assassin Jack Ruby.

A stroll through the dark side

One can’t explore Chicago without running into mob history, and Chicago Eternal gives a nod to some important organized crime figures. “Big Jim” Colosimo, a titan (literally and figuratively) of the 1920s underworld, was assassinated at the hands of Capone’s henchmen and buried at Oak Woods Cemetery. Founded in 1853, Oak Woods reflects Chicago’s complicated history as home to a mass grave housing thousands of Confederate soldiers as well as some of Chicago’s most prominent African-American residents, including Ida B. Wells and Jesse Owens.

To his credit, Broutman doesn’t flinch when depicting the darker episodes of Chicago history. He introduces us to Burr Oak Cemetery, a historically African-American burial place on Chicago’s southwest side and the resting place of Emmett Till. The horrific events surrounding Till’s lynching in Mississippi in 1955 sparked national outrage and fear in the black community. His grave at Burr Oak still serves as a symbol of America’s difficult relationship with race and our as-yet unresolved tensions.

For almost a hundred years, the bodies buried on the site of today’s Read Dunning Memorial Park in northwest Chicago belonged to the poor, the indigent, and the unidentified. The infamous Cook County Insane Asylum, Cook County Poorhouse, and Dunning Infirmary all buried their dead here. When the fire of 1871 claimed the lives of over three hundred Chicago residents, the 117 unidentified victims were interred on this site as well. The cemetery also received the bodies of unidentified Civil War dead, abandoned and orphaned children, and the unclaimed dead. When the site fell into disrepair, its purpose was forgotten. In 1989 reports of unearthed human remains halted construction projects in the area and prompted the rediscovery of this cemetery and its forlorn history.

Sports and surprises

Balancing out the heavier themes, the book also contains photos of some whimsical and unique memorials that buck tradition and imbue the gravestone with the character of the deceased. Dennis Mascari, a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, designed and funded the construction of “Beyond the Vines,” a uniquely Chicago columbarium that emulates Wrigley Field’s outfield wall and contains 288 niches for cremains. Mascari, now interred there himself, wanted to provide grieving families with a less “miserable” visiting experience suffused by the spirit of their loved ones’ passion for the home team. Actual benches from Wrigley Field complete this singular tribute to hometown sports and their fans.

At the end of the book, you’ll encounter a surprise: put on the included 3-D glasses and take an analog virtual tour of some of Chicago’s most spectacular gravesites. An unusual choice for a book about cemeteries, this section provides an extra vivid immersion into the texture and detail of the graves. 

Chicago Eternal takes us on a sweeping photographic odyssey through the civic and personal histories of one of America’s great cities. With its mix of informative backstories and large-scale images, this impressive coffee table book will please cemetery fans, history buffs, and lovers of photography alike.

Article by Connecting Directors contributor Diana Eliza Ionescu