Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago

One of the oldest cemeteries in Chicago is Oak Woods Cemetery, which was founded in 1854, but started burying people in 1860.  Located in the South Side of Chicago, it used to be outside of Chicago’s boundaries, but that changed as the city grew.  What I enjoyed most about my visit there was discovering the diverse range of people buried in it.

When visiting an American cemetery, one of the most valuable websites is Findagrave.com.  It is basically a cemetery database.  Anybody with an account can add graves to it.  Some people actually add graves to it for fun, since it is an invaluable resource for genealogical research.  The more famous the cemetery, the more likely most, if not all, of its graves have been added to it.  What is even more amazing is that for famous graves, people often add photos and coordinate locations, so that you can easily find a specific grave using your GPS.  Before visiting Oak Woods Cemetery, I researched which famous people were buried there, and then used Findagrave and my phone’s GPS to find them.

Perhaps what makes Oak Woods Cemetery most unique is that, according to Rick Kogan’s May 31, 2013 article in the Chicago Tribune, it contains the largest known mass grave in the Western Hemisphere.  Known as the Confederate Mound, this mass grave contains the bodies of approximately 4,200 Confederate soldiers from the American Civil War.  The reason why these Southern troops were buried in the North is because they were prisoners of war living in a military prison in Chicago called Camp Douglas.  The conditions at the camp were terrible, however, a smallpox epidemic caused the deaths of most of the Confederate soldiers buried in the mass grave.  These soldiers’ bodies were actually relocated to Oak Woods Cemetery after the Civil War, because, according to the National Park Service, the U.S. Government had to close their original burial place, due to flooding.

Oak Woods Cemetery’s Confederate Mound

In 1895, an ex-Confederate group in Chicago erected a monument over Oak Woods’ Confederate mass grave.  In response, the following year, a Southern abolitionist erected a cenotaph (empty tomb in honor of a person or group) at Oak Woods in honor of Southern abolitionists.  Oak Woods also has a smaller monument over a mass grave of Union soldiers.

The Abolitionist Cenotaph at Oak Woods Cemetery
Oak Woods Cemetery’s Monument over the Graves of Union Soldiers

Ironically, Oak Woods not only houses dead Confederate troops, but also some famous African Americans.  My favorite person buried at Oak Woods is the Olympic running champion, Jesse Owens.  He famously represented the United States in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany, where he beat a German runner, and thus disproved Hitler’s belief in the superiority of the “Aryan” race.  Other famous African Americans buried at Oak Woods include Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African American mayor, and Ida B. Wells, a journalist and civil rights activist.

The diversity of Oak Woods Cemetery does not end with Confederate soldiers and Civil Rights activists.  Not far from the Confederate Mound is a separate Jewish cemetery.  However, it is maintained by several synagogues instead of by Dignity Memorial, which maintains the rest of the cemetery.  Sadly, because of the huge expense of maintaining graves, and because the Jewish cemetery is older, the graves are in poor condition.

Oak Woods Cemetery’s Jewish Section

Last but not least, another famous person buried at Oak Woods Cemetery is Enrico Fermi.  He is the Italian scientist who created the first nuclear reactor, meaning that he helped create the atomic bomb.

Oak Woods Cemetery clearly shows that once we are dead, we are all truly equal, no matter what notions we may have about it while we are still alive. If only people could get along in life as they do in death.

You may also be interested in my post about Graceland Cemetery.

Sources and Further Reading

“Confederate Mound at Oak Woods Cemetery Chicago, Illinois.” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/national_cemeteries/Illinois/Confederate_Mound_Oak_Woods_Cemetery.html (accessed May 29, 2020).

“It Tells His Life Story: Abolitionist Shaft in Oakwoods Erected by T.D. Lowther”. Chicago Tribune. June 9, 1896.

American Experience: Jesse Owens. Directed by Laurens Grant. Boston: WGBH, 2012. 

Kogan, Rick. “Camp Douglas Effort Stirs Ghosts of the Civil War.” Chicago Tribune. May 31, 2013. https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/ct-xpm-2013-05-31-ct-ae-0602-kogan-sidewalks-20130531-story.html (accessed May 29, 2020).

“Oak Woods Cemetery.” Dignity Memorial. https://www.dignitymemorial.com/funeral-homes/chicago-il/oak-woods-cemetery/6248 (accessed May 29, 2020).

“Oak Woods Cemetery.” Find A Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/173554/oak-woods-cemetery (accessed May 29, 2020).

“Oakwoods Cemetery.” Jewish Genealogical Society of Illinois. https://jgsi.org/OakOakwoods-Cemeterywoods-Cemetery (accessed May 29, 2020).

Arlington National Cemetery

In the United States, the last Monday of the month of May is Memorial Day, in which everyone takes off from work to remember those who died in various U.S. wars.  Originally called Decoration Day, this national holiday began in 1868 to commemorate those who died in the American Civil War (1861-1865).  However, eventually, the holiday evolved into remembering those who died in any U.S. war. 

The American Civil War also gave birth to Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Virginia, which is arguably the most famous cemetery in the United States.  Although it is currently closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic (except for those who have family members buried there), during normal situations, it provides daily bus tours to visitors.  Because of its vast size of 624 acres, with over 400,000 burials, the tour only covers several major highlights.

Perhaps one of the most important stops on the tour is Arlington House, since it is a mansion located on the cemetery grounds that predates the Civil War.  Once the Civil War began, the United States’ government took over this strategic location near the country’s capital.  However, they chose to make the land surrounding the mansion a cemetery, in order to prevent its owner from eventually returning to it.  Its owner was the Confederate General Robert E. Lee.  He inherited the house from his wife, who was herself a descendant of George Washington’s wife, Martha (from Martha’s first husband). 

During the Civil War, the U.S. government buried soldiers from any rank at Arlington.  However, as time passed, the Cemetery gained prestige, and now has a more selective process of who can be buried there.  Among the famous men buried there (as mentioned on the tour) are General John J. Pershing who served in WWI, President John F. Kennedy and his brothers Robert and Ted (the former two served in WWII, and the latter enlisted after the War), and President William Howard Taft.  President Taft never served in the military, so I am not sure how he ended up at Arlington.  However, he is the only person to have served as both the U.S. president and the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.  Finally, Audie Murphy is buried at Arlington.  He was the most decorated soldier in WWII.

John F. Kennedy was actually a war hero during WWII. The 1963 film PT 109 tells that story.  After the War, Audie Murphy landed a career in Hollywood.  The 1955 film To Hell and Back is an autobiographical movie that stars him.  I have watched both films a while ago.  I do not remember them well but do remember thinking that they were mediocre but interesting films.

Perhaps the most famous site at Arlington National Cemetery is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  This tomb began in 1921, with the remains of four unidentified dead soldiers from World War I.  Unidentified soldiers from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War were subsequently added to the tomb.  Volunteers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment guard it 24/7, in rain or shine.  Seeing the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and its guard is perhaps the highlight of the Arlington National Cemetery tour. 

Since the Cemetery is currently closed, you can download the app to have a free tour from home, or find the same information on a site called ANC Explorer:  https://ancexplorer.army.mil/publicwmv/#/arlington-national/ You might also be interested to know that during this pandemic, the Cemetery decided to open its 105-year-old time capsule.

Sources and Further Reading

Arlington: Field of Honor. Directed by John B. Bredar. New York: National Geographic, 2005.

“General Information.” Arlington National Cemetery Tours. https://www.arlingtontours.com/general-information (accessed May 24, 2020).

“History of Arlington National Cemetery.” Arlington National Cemetery. https://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Explore/History/History-of-Arlington-National-Cemetery (accessed May 24, 2020).

Machemer, Theresa. Arlington National Cemetery Opens Its 105-Year-Old Time Capsule.” Smithsonian Magazine. May 20, 2020. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/arlington-cemetery-opens-its-105-year-old-time-capsule-180974924/?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=socialmedia&fbclid=IwAR3C6LRxI9DqfUV_Cxd2IP4a1nvDd1zBrzsj-cHAsuPiuGhrYrBHG_Fzyhc (accessed May 24, 2020).

PT 109. Directed by Leslie H. Martinson. Burbank, California: Warner Bros., 1963.

Sorto, Gabrielle. “What You Need to Know about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.” CNN. May 27, 2019. https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/27/us/tomb-of-the-unknown-soldier-trnd/index.html (accessed May 24, 2020).

To Hell and Back. Directed by Jesse Hibbs. Universal City, California: Universal Studios, 1955.

Van Vleck, Jennifer Leigh. “Arlington National Cemetery and the Origins of Memorial Day.” Arlington National Cemetery. May 21, 2020. https://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Blog/Post/10817/Arlington-National-Cemetery-and-the-Origins-of-Memorial-Day (accessed May 24, 2020).

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).

Assyrian War Memorial

My uncle enjoys estate sale shopping, so in 2016, when he was cleaning out his house in order to move, he came across many interesting items that he had acquired over the years.  One of those items included a booklet, bound in an unassuming, brown cover.  Inside this booklet, dated 1944 (the year before World War II ended), it says, “Assyrian Americans of Chicago who are serving in the armed forces of their country.  Assyrian National Association of Chicago, Inc.”  With the exception of a brief introduction to who Assyrians are, the rest of this booklet depicts black and white photos of Assyrian soldiers, listed in alphabetical order by last name.  My uncle knew that I would enjoy this book, so he gave it to me.  Ever since then, I have attempted to track down its history.

Because my uncle purchased the booklet from an estate sale, I assume that the estate sale must have been happening because one of the soldiers depicted in the book had died.  Unfortunately, I cannot confirm this guess, but I did learn other interesting facts about the book.  First of all, I tried to discover what became of the Assyrian National Association of Chicago.  I eventually learned that it was renamed the Assyrian American Association of Chicago, which does still exist.

As I continued digging, I learned that the Ashurbanipal Library, an Assyrian library belonging to another Assyrian organization, the Assyrian Universal Alliance Foundation, did not own this book in its collection.  However, it owned multiple reprints of it.  This reprint edition was published in 1993 by the American Assyrian Amvet Post #5, in order to raise money for a war memorial in Elmwood Cemetery.  As I did more research, I found two Chicago Tribune articles about how one of the soldiers pictured in the book, John Hosanna, worked tirelessly to create this war memorial.  Unfortunately, Hosanna, who began the campaign in 1992, died a month before the memorial’s completion in 1997 (see https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1998-04-05-9804050286-story.html).

My research eventually led me to visit the Elmwood Cemetery in River Grove, Illinois.  This cemetery used to be an American Civil War post before it became a graveyard, so it now has some Civil War memorials.  An Assyrian Church eventually purchased plots in this cemetery.  Section 45 not only has the Assyrian War Memorial, but also contains numerous Assyrian graves, many of which have tombstones written in the Aramaic script, Syriac.  The majority of these graves date to the first half of the twentieth century.  (Most of the more recent Assyrian graves can be found at the Montrose Cemetery in Chicago, including the grave of the late Assyrian Church of the East patriarch, Mar Dinkha IV).

Graves with Syriac script in Elmwood Cemetery

Much research has been done on the history of different minority groups who served in World War II.  However, that is not generally the case for Assyrians.  For instance, most people do not know that the U.S. diplomat in Japan during World War II, Eugene Dooman, was Assyrian.  He grew up in Japan because his parents were Assyrian missionaries from Iran serving there.  Additionally, not many know about the Assyrian Levies from Iraq, who helped the British during World War II.  Since the British oversaw Iraq during that time, these Assyrians were some of the many men from British territories and colonies who fought in the British army during WWII.  Hopefully, more research will be done in the future, but in the meantime, we can be thankful for men like John Hosanna, who worked hard in preserving a bit of history.

Assyrian War Memorial in Elmwood Cemetery – River Grove, IL

Sources and Further Reading

“Assyrian AmVets Memorial.” The American Legion. https://www.legion.org/memorials/238719/assyrian-amvets-memorial (accessed October 12, 2019).

Borsky, Daniel. “Veterans Hope to Set Memories in Marble.” Chicago Tribune, July 29, 1996. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1996-07-29-9607290187-story.html (accessed October 12, 2019).

“Elmwood Cemetery and Mausoleum.” Dignity Memorial. https://www.dignitymemorial.com/funeral-homes/river-grove-il/elmwood-cemetery-and-mausoleum/6246 (accessed October 12, 2019).

“Forest Park Cemeteries.” The Historical Society Forest Park. https://www.forestparkhistory.org/forest-park-cemeteries.html (accessed October 12, 2019).

“Our History.” Montrose Cemetery and Crematorium. http://montrosecemetery.com/History.html (accessed October 12, 2019).

Peters, Lincoln R. Biak-Zambo: A Story of Two Soldiers. Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2000.

Sclair, Helen. Encyclopedia of Chicago, s.v. “Cemeteries.” Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 2005. http://encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/223.html (accessed October 12, 2019).

Shavit, David. The United States in Asia: A Historical Dictionary. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.

Shoumanov, Vasili. Assyrian American Association of Chicago: 100 Years. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2018.

Zielinski, Graeme. “Last Chance for Immortality.” Chicago Tribune, April 5, 1998. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1998-04-05-9804050286-story.html      (accessed October 12, 2019).