Final Resting Places
From the valiant and vanquished to villains and unsung heroes, the cemeteries of the western suburbs are home to a wide range of historic and famous figures
Photo by Ed Ahern
Plainfield is not a big town (less than 40,000 people), and Plainfield Township Cemetery is small and rustic. But it’s hard to imagine a comparable patch of land with the same share of colorful characters, the same number of people interwoven into the country’s history, as lie beneath the green grass of the cemetery.
There’s dashing daredevil pilot Eddie Gardner, a pioneer of airmail before 1920. There’s Alfred Corbin, a venerable shop owner struck down in the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918. Further back, there are Reuben and Betsey Flagg, early settlers in 1830 whose baby girl, Samantha, was the first non-Native American white child born in Will County. This is the resting place of people whose lives echo events, good and bad, small and mighty, of American life. There is a World War II pilot shot down over Italy, a World War I soldier gassed on the Fourth of July, victims of the terrible Iroquois Theatre Fire in Chicago, a woman who, as an eight-year-old girl, accidently shot a customer at her father’s store in Plainfield and also the woman she killed. And let’s not forget wily George Pierce, a spitball pitcher for the Chicago Cubs from 1912-16 whose moist offerings were turned into double plays by Tinker, Evers and Chance.
Yet the cemetery, in another sense, is also rather ordinary. “I think every cemetery has lots of stories,” says Tina Beaird, a Plainfield history buff. “The local stories are hidden in every community. You just have to dig them up.”
So here are our cemeteries, offering a large and often larger-than-life slice of American life, in all its glories, its tragedies and triumphs, and even its intimate, private family lives, ensconced in the love of family bonds. Far from being morbid, our cemeteries teem with life. The monuments of marble reveal our history and tell us about ourselves. Our downtowns and neighborhoods bustle with strivings and carry the weight of incomplete stories. There is a wonderful weightlessness to cemeteries, a stark finality. It’s here among graves we can slow down and take the measure of our lives.
Death can be cruel and ugly, but loved ones often pay tribute to the deceased with beautiful or unusual monuments. We don’t know much about the Di Salvo family, but they clearly enjoyed one another’s company and wanted to memorialize their bond of love. Five members of the Di Salvo family stand together for eternity in a whimsical, almost cheery, highly detailed group statue at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside. Actually, the graves of Angelo (1869-1932) and Rosa (1872-1927) are here and they had at least three children, but no one can confirm the precise identities of the five depicted. What’s indisputable is that the massive statue marvelously spins on its base so that the figures can look out on the four grave plots on both sides. In death a closeness is preserved.
Also notable at Mount Carmel is the marble statue of a woman, collapsed in utter grief, to honor the travails of the unlucky Salerno family. One died in a robbery at his store in 1927, and his nephew died while serving in World War II. One of the most moving tributes to a child is the statue at Mount Carmel of the young Marie Serittello, who died more than a century ago. Frozen in time and in her shy youth, sheltered from the rain and snow, she firmly stands on a base inside a three-sided monument. Her faraway gaze is beatific.
Hauntingly mournful, three-foot-tall statues memorialize brothers Lars and Eddie Schmidt, who died two days apart in 1890, at Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park. Lars, 6, wears a sailor suit, and Eddie, 2, dons a dress (as boys did back then).
Using the stage name of Otto Kline, Otto Kreinbrink wowed crowds in Wild West shows. He was killed in a rodeo accident in 1915. The gray boulder at his grave at Naperville Cemetery is carved with a cowboy hat, boots, spurs and a lariat. Also at the Naperville Cemetery is the giant Netzley family mausoleum, a miniature Egyptian temple flanked by marble sphinxes.
Bluff City Cemetery in Elgin has an intriguing four-foot-tall replica of a log cabin to honor pioneer Benjamin Burritt (1796-1880), the city’s first stonemason. Near the main gate is a delightful, 15-foot pink granite angel hovering over the graves of Hendee and Brown, two early settlers.
The United Ancient Order of Druids was a 19th-century fraternal society inspired by Celtic legends, and a pensive Merlin, the greatest Druid teacher, sits high atop a monument towering over the graves of members of the order at Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park. It’s all very J.R.R. Tolkien-ish.
Seventy Civil War soldiers lie in perpetuity at Forest Hill Cemetery in Glen Ellyn. The cemetery was begun in 1835, just one year after the village was settled. Also among the 3,000 souls here are some of the first families of the village.
Naperville carpenter Levi Shafer, buried at Naperville Cemetery, helped launch the battle of Gettysburg. Part of the Eighth Illinois Calvary, Sgt. Shafer told Captain Marcellus Jones of Wheaton that the Confederates were near. “Show me,” Jones said. They got to the spot, and Jones grabbed Shafer’s gun and fired the first shot of the historic battle. Legend has it that Jones missed, and then Shafer landed his first two shots.
The impressive, 18-foot-tall Civil War soldier holding a musket at Union Cemetery in Crystal Lake dates from 1889. It’s made of what was known as “white bronze” — actually, zinc, and its color is, appropriately enough, bluish-gray. The names of four major Civil War battles and 379 local veterans are engraved on the base.
John Gowdy fought in the Revolutionary War and eventually made his way to Kane County, where he died at age 92. He’s buried at East Batavia Cemetery.
Its name inspired by Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, Arlington Cemetery in Elmhurst also includes graves, among others, of soldiers. About 130 soldiers of the Spanish-American War are interred here.
Seven of the eight men convicted — despite little evidence — in connection with the Haymarket Riot in Chicago in 1886 are buried at Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park. The spectacular Haymarket Martyrs Monument memorializes the labor activists.
Also buried at Forest home is crusading preacher Billy Sunday (1862-1935), who has a marker that resembles a church window; and onetime Oak Park residents Dr. Clarence and Grace Hall Hemingway, parents to famed novelist Ernest.
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame raves that he was “one of the most electrifying performers in blues history, as well as one of its greatest characters.” Born as Chester Burnett, but better known as “Howlin’ Wolf,” the singer and guitarist who inspired the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin lies quietly at Oakridge-Glen Oak Cemeteries in Hillside. Maybe at the opposite end of the excitement spectrum is Li’l Orphan Annie, whose creator, Harold Lincoln Gray (1894-1968), is also buried at the joint cemetery in Hillside.
Alphonse Capone, Chicago’s most notorious gangster, lies, perhaps at peace or perhaps not, at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside. His plain monument shows his name, years on earth (1899-1947) and the words My Jesus Mercy. Hmm. The 125-pound marker has been stolen multiple times, and cigars, religious medals and even cash are left at his plot. Lesser-known hoodlums have much more ostentatious monuments at Mount Carmel, including one for Giuseppe “Joseph” Giunta (1887-1929), beaten to death for making a power move on Capone after Scarface invited him to dinner, the fortress-like mausoleum for Sam Giancana (1908-1975) and an imposing mausoleum for Mike Merlo. His burial in 1924 prompted the delivery of flowers worth $100,000.
“Baby Face” Nelson (1908-1934) sleeps soundly at St. Joseph Cemetery in River Grove. The infamous bank robber is buried under his unglamorous real name, Lester Gillis.
Joseph Naper, the founder of Naperville, lies at Naperville Cemetery. With roots in Scotland, he traveled here in 1831 from Vermont and established a saw mill and trading post. He surveyed and platted the town but also was high-minded. He helped fund the first schoolhouse and debated issues of the day as a member of the Naperville Lyceum.
Also buried at Naperville Cemetery, Clarissa Hobson became the first white settler of DuPage County when she arrived with her husband and five children in 1831. They had come from Indiana and then from Kendall County. The family built a saw mill and grist mill and even used their home as a tavern to generate more income. A woman who could do it all, Hobson birthed seven more children and then ran the mill after her husband died.
Luther Hatch, whose ancestors were among the second batch of Pilgrims that came to America in 1626, traveled from New England to what is now Lisle in 1832. He is buried at rustic Lisle Cemetery, begun that same year (pioneer life was no picnic) for the 11 settlers who first arrived in that era, five of whom are interred here. Another pivotal figure in DuPage County history is Mark Beaubien, buried at tiny Beaubien Cemetery in Lisle. Beaubien was a mid-19th century toll keeper of the Southwestern Plank Road, which ran from Chicago to Naperville and roughly paralleled Ogden Avenue. Instead of getting bogged down on a dirt road, travelers would pay 25 cents for a two-horse wagon to use Plank Road.
Nearly 70 victims of the Eastland Steamer disaster of 1915 are interred at Mount Carmel. A dozen years earlier 602 patrons died when fire ravaged the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago. Firefighter Peter Mutter valiantly broke through locked gates to get inside to try to rescue people. Unable to shake the horrors he witnessed, he shot himself at his firehouse two years later. His innovative headstone at Mount Carmel is shaped like a tree, a symbol then for first responders. The Our Lady of the Angels school fire in Chicago in 1958 claimed 95 lives. Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside, where 45 children were buried, has a moving memorial. Another 11 children and the three nuns who died are interred at Mount Carmel.
Showmen’s Rest at Woodlawn Memorial Park in Forest Park has the remains of 50 circus performers killed in a train accident near Hammond, Indiana, in 1918. The headstones carry only nicknames such as “The Fat Man” and “Baldy,” and five stone elephants, their trunks lowered in mourning, patrol the site.
A place for the dead may seem to be an unlikely setting for tranquility, but some cemeteries, by virtue of their natural beauty, offer a peace that passeth understanding. Few cemeteries can match the bucolic serenity of Bronswood Cemetery in Oak Brook with its ponds, stands of trees and picturesque twin bridges.
Resting in Obscurity
The contrast is startling. Graves at St. Mary’s Nativity Cemetery in Crest Hill are decorated with flowers or flags; across the street at a separate cemetery the small, unadorned graves uniformly are all simple, small concrete blocks. Some markers list just a last name or even just initials. A monument here provides the context: it reads “They Paid Their Debt to Society. May God Remit Their Debt to Him.” These were inmates at the nearby Stateville Correctional Center (not to be confused with the Joliet Correctional Center, also nearby). No less than 437 inmates were buried here as well as in another cemetery a bit closer to Stateville. Crime doesn’t pay, leaving inmates often penniless and quite forgotten. Forever to be unknown is a “Negro” named “Joe,” buried in 1927.
Dignity in Death
Sadly, communities often let old, inactive cemeteries deteriorate. But, hearteningly, someone or some group laments the decline and fixes markers and restores the grounds. Such has been the case with Hillside Cemetery, where more than 900 patients of the Elgin State Mental Hospital were buried from 1933 to the mid-1980s. These were patients whose families were too poor for burial elsewhere or whose remains were never claimed. Predictably, vegetation ran riot over graves and markers crumbled until the city and the Elgin Area Historical Society stepped up a few years ago. Many buried here had been confined to the mental hospital because they suffered from dementia and the nursing home complex had yet to exist. Poignant as well are the graves of several infants whose mothers were patients, and that of legendary, one-of-a-kind Robert Wilson, who was born a slave in 1836 and led an adventurous life until he passed in 1948.
St. Stephen Cemetery in Carol Stream saw its first burial in 1854 and its last in 1910. The burying ground for German Catholic immigrants in what was then the town of Gretna was overrun with weeds and forgotten until the Friends of Pioneer Cemeteries and the Milton Township Cemeteries Authority repaired gravestones and installed a new fence and entrance sign a few years ago. The cemetery is still hard to find — it’s west of Schmale Road and north of St. Charles Road, near the Great Western Trail.
Two other pioneer cemeteries also have been restored by the two groups. Tiny Jewell Grove in Wheaton, a family cemetery with a dozen marked graves, includes the remains of Elias Jewell, a prominent Wheaton citizen and veteran of the War of 1812. Pleasant Hill Cemetery in Wheaton, which has 100 graves including those of Civil War vets, is still open for burials.
The Loved One: Pet Cemeteries
There are about 700 pet cemeteries in the United States, and the western suburbs have two of the most notable. Hinsdale Pet Cemetery has 12,000 pets on its 12 acres. Besides dogs and cats, you’ll find tributes to birds, horses, monkeys and even sharks and skunks. Headstones carry expected names such as Fluffy and Duke but also more affectionate names such as “My Darling Girl” and “My World.”
The Illinois Pet Cemetery in Hanover Park has been run by the Bloze family since it opened in 1926. Patriarch Michael Bloze was inspired by the pet cemeteries he saw while a solider in France during World War I. He died in a car accident just four years later while selling headstones for pets.Edit Module