Cemetery Series: Illinois

Nestled on the North side of Chicago Illinois is a sprawling 122 acre burial ground that has a fascinating history. Bohemian National Cemetery is a testament to overcoming adversity, prejudice, and intolerance, both now and in the hereafter.

Chicago has always had a very diversified population culturally, and in the 19th century, many on the city’s north side were of Polish/Bohemian descent. The predominant religion among these people was Catholic, and they were buried as such in the cemetery set aside for them. However in 1877, a priest took it upon himself to decide who would be buried there and who wouldn’t. He made choices based merely on his own opinions of people and would refuse burial rites to those he deemed unworthy.

This prompted the Bohemian societies of Chicago to petition for their own cemetery, which was granted. The land itself was purchased in the Jefferson township, and sadly a young child was the cemetery’s first burial in July of 1877. A few more burials took place before Bohemian National Cemetery was officially opened on September 2, 1877, with the first funeral being on November 1 of that year.

There may not be the many tales of hauntings that have flourished in other Chicago cemeteries, but that does not make this majestic graveyard any less fascinating. There are many points of interest in the cemetery, including the mausoleum of the Cermak family. Mayor Anton Cermak was assassinated while protecting President Franklin Delanoe Roosevelt’s life in 1933. There is also “The Hiker”, a Spanish American war mermorial that is massive in appearance. The statue itself stands over 8 ft tall and weights over 1600 tons.

It is also the final resting place for many victims of the S.S. Eastland disaster. This tour ship that was docked in the Chicago River rolled over on its side in a freak accident on July 24, 1915, causing the deaths of over 800 passengers on board. The Eastland Disaster victims are buried in Section 16.

The cemetery does have one feature that (perhaps wrongly) has gotten the reputation of being sinister. The Pilgrim Mother monument, designed by Albin Polosek, was erected to honor the mother of the Stejskal-Fuchal family. The hood of the figure hides the face, which is actually quite motherly and comforting. However, especially when twilight arrives, the statue looks very much like the “Grim Reaper”

This is a peaceful cemetery, with the sense of pride and care that must have been felt by its founders, who fought for a place where anyone outside of religious constraints could be buried, and where no one would be judged for their station in life or their beliefs. A place for the weary to rest, without earthly judgement.

After all…the two times in life that we are all equal is when we are born, and when we die.

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