In the news - Suburban Life and Chicago Tribune
- 1) Photo postings from Suburban Life newspaper:
Lyonsville Cemetery, Indian Head Park, IL
St. Mary's and St. Peter's Cemetery, Elmhurst, IL
Main Street Cemetery, Downers Grove, IL
2) Article in today's Tribune:
Rest or jog or picnic in peace
'You don't have to watch out for traffic. There are no curbs to go up
and down. The scenery is beautiful. And when we're done they give us
coffee [at the funeral home].'
By Josh Noel
Tribune staff reporter
September 15, 2007
On their first date, Steve and Chanda Szczeblowski packed a picnic
lunch and spent six hours at Graceland Cemetery, chatting and
Twenty years and two daughters later, the Szczeblowskis return to
They're quiet and clean. There's little traffic. And they're filled
with history. In short, cemeteries make for a perfect Saturday
afternoon family getaway -- provided dead bodies in all directions
don't bother you.
"They're just beautiful," said Chanda Szczeblowski, 40, of Berwyn, a
tattooed graphic designer with blue-streaked hair. "It's a fun place
to read and walk and ruminate on what happened to this person and why
they were here at 23 years old."
Though hardly mainstream, cemeteries are evolving beyond thoughts of
loss and mortality to become an underground recreation spot.
Enthusiasts range from the very young -- like the Szczeblowskis' 3-
year-old daughter, Naomi, who learned to walk in cemeteries -- to the
three octogenarians who get their weekly exercise amid Forest Park
The trend harks back to the turn of the 20th Century, when families
packed lunches and trekked long distances to spend afternoons by a
loved one's grave, said Bob Fells, external chief operating officer
of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association.
Leisurely visits fell as new forms of entertainment developed, cars
simplified transportation and the dead became increasingly taboo (as
evidenced by the childhood practice of holding your breath while
But the fear of death seems to have waned somewhat, Fells said, as
people live longer and become more involved in planning for their own
deaths. The well-regarded cable television drama "Six Feet Under,"
about a family-run mortuary, also helped bring death into the
mainstream, he said.
But he said the first joggers and bikers were something of a
surprise, not to mention the weddings in Cincinnati and 5-kilometer
races in Kansas City, Mo.
"There are all sorts of new uses," Fells said. "Though hopefully the
visitors are respectful."
Last month, John Isaacson, general manager of Woodlawn Cemetery in
Forest Park, opened his gates to more than a dozen clowns who told
jokes and performed tricks for an audience at Showmen's Rest, a
cluster of circus performer graves. Though there is a fine line when
it comes to using the grounds respectfully -- biking over grave
plots, for example, is not advised -- he appreciates the visitors.
"We're here as part of a community and it's a nice place," Isaacson
said. "Why not have people enjoy it?"
Among his regulars is Craig Bessett, 50, a corporate buyer who
regularly walks Woodlawn's paved 11/2-mile loop past shaded lawns and
slow-moving geese on his lunch break. Noise from bustling Cermak Road
is drowned out by the white buzz of crickets and riding mowers.
A forest preserve sits across the street, but Bessett prefers
Woodlawn's sculpted cleanliness. Co-workers occasionally rib him, but
he laughs it off.
"I tell them I'm going to talk with my good friends back here because
they're always so agreeable," Bessett said.
Some days he brings his camera and others he just walks with one hand
swinging and the other in his pocket.
"You really start thinking about how unimportant some things are when
you see all these people at rest and realize their troubles are far
behind them," he said. "It kind of focuses you."
Last year a woman approached Oakridge Cemetery in Hillside about
hosting a wedding outside its chapel. The view would have avoided any
headstones, but General Manager Denise Bullocks was still surprised.
She has seen a steady increase of joggers and dog walkers during the
last several years, she said, but never expected a wedding.
The bride thought better of the request, but Bullocks figures another
is inevitable. She said she would agree -- for a "small fee" -- so
long as the nuptials are held during off hours. She doesn't want a
funeral and wedding at the same time.
"But it makes sense," Bullocks said. "It's a quiet and peaceful
There are restrictions, however. Woodlawn doesn't allow student
drivers to practice on its looping paved roads. Gary Neubieser, the
general manager of Concordia Cemetery in Forest Park, doesn't allow
"I had a burial once where the family came the next day to visit the
site and there was a pile of poop on the grave," Neubieser said. "I
couldn't believe it."
He once made a bid to bring people in for recreation, but found it to
be mostly trouble. These days he won't reject such visitors, but he
keeps a wary eye on them.
"Sometimes if I have a funeral I have to ask someone, 'Can you jog
somewhere else?' A bunch of people mourning don't want to see a
jogger run by," he said.
But Eleanor Smith has had no complaints. Every Wednesday morning,
Smith, 83, walks through Woodlawn with three other women, two of whom
are also around 80. Centrally located, the cemetery seemed a natural
choice when one of the women suggested it.
"At first you're sort of taken aback, but we thought, 'What the
heck?'" said Smith, of Lyons. "It's great! You don't have to watch
out for traffic. There are no curbs to go up and down. The scenery is
beautiful. And when we're done they give us coffee [at the funeral
They pass funerals, but are sure to stay as far as possible.
The key, she said, especially on her side of 80, is to maintain a
sense of humor: "One woman said, 'Well this is handy -- if we should
collapse all you have to do is throw some dirt on us.'"