Graceland Cemetery in Chicago

If you suddenly find yourself laid off from a job that you enjoyed, and are given more free time than you have had in a long time, what do you do?  When this situation happened to me, I tried to look for inexpensive ways to keep myself busy and de-stress.  As morbid as this may sound, I found myself exploring cemeteries.  My favorite was, undoubtedly, Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.

This creepy but amazing tombstone was built for Dexter Graves, one of the earliest non-Native American inhabitants in Chicago.

Founded in 1860, Graceland is in the northwest part of Chicago, not far from Wrigley Field, where the baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, plays.  This area used to be just outside of the city’s limits, when cemeteries were prohibited from being built within the city’s borders.  However, as Chicago grew, so did its borders. 

A few blocks away from Graceland Cemetery is the even older Jewish cemetery, the Hebrew Benevolent Society Cemetery, founded in 1851. Unfortunately, unlike Graceland, its plots are overgrown and neglected.

What makes Graceland such a pleasant place to visit is the fact that it is a rural cemetery.  Before the mid-nineteenth century, most people in the United States and Europe buried their dead in the churchyard.  However, as the population increased, so did the need to find more land to bury the dead.  Architects soon developed rural cemeteries, which also functioned as public parks, since parks were not commonplace yet.  Therefore, people would actually picnic and spend their leisure in these rural cemeteries.  Characteristics of these rural cemeteries included huge mausoleums and ponds.  Nowadays, cemeteries tend to be simpler, and certainly not places that people visit for fun.

As you walk through Graceland Cemetery, the huge monuments make it clear that the people buried there were once the wealthiest individuals in Chicago society.  Because of this, there were many other visitors touring the cemetery for fun when I was there.  In fact, the Chicago Architecture Center actually offers formal tours of this historic graveyard.  When I arrived at Graceland, I first entered the visitor center, where I watched a brief video summarizing the history of the cemetery, and also picked up a free map that points out where all of the famous Chicagoans are buried. If you ever visit Graceland Cemetery, make sure to pick up a map at the visitor center, or print one from their website. Looking for famous people can be a fun type of scavenger hunt.

Louis Sullivan, a famous architect buried in Graceland, designed this impressive mausoleum, which is also found at Graceland.

Graceland Cemetery is best known for being the burial ground of famous Chicago architects such as Daniel Burnham (who helped design Chicago) and William Le Baron Jenney (who built the first skyscraper ever).  Additionally, if you live in Chicago, you will notice that many of the tombs match the names of famous Chicago streets (e.g. Wacker, Kimball). Another famous person buried at Graceland includes Allan Pinkerton, a pioneer detective in the United States, and someone who helped stop an assassination plot against Abraham Lincoln. Additionally, Marshall Field, the founder of Chicago’s Field Museum and the Marshall Field’s Department Store, is buried there.

Cyrus McCormick, the inventor of the mechanical reaper, is buried at Graceland Cemetery.

Since I enjoy Charles Dickens’ books, my favorite tomb at Graceland was of his younger brother, Augustus.  In the 1850s, Augustus abandoned his wife after she became blind, and ran off with another woman to Chicago. It sounds like something a Charles Dickens character might do!  After that, Charles Dickens broke ties with his brother. According to a June 24, 2004 article in The Chicago Reader called “The Dirty Dickens,” Augustus’ tomb in Graceland Cemetery did not receive a monument until his great-great-great-great grandson decided to put one up in 2004.

Being the third largest city in the United States, most of Chicago can be a loud and busy place. However, once you enter the brick walls of Graceland Cemetery, you completely forget that you are still in Chicago. The peaceful surroundings make you feel as if you walked into a different world, full of interesting stories now mostly forgotten underground.

Sources and Further Reading

Greenfield, Rebecca. “Our First Public Parks: The Forgotten History of Cemeteries.” The Atlantic, March 16, 2011. https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/03/our-first-public-parks-the-forgotten-history-of-cemeteries/71818/ (accessed March 7, 2020).

Rodkin, Dennis. “The Dirty Dickens.” The Chicago Reader, June 24, 2004. https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/the-dirty-dickens/Content?oid=915864 (accessed March 7, 2020).

Sclair, Helen. “Cemeteries.” Encyclopedia of Chicago, 2005. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/223.html (accessed March 7, 2020).

“The Story of Graceland.” Graceland Cemetery. https://www.gracelandcemetery.org/the-story-of-graceland/ (accessed March 7, 2020).

Windsong, Juniper. “Eternal Silence.” Atlas Obscura. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/eternal-silence (accessed March 7, 2020).

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