People die a lot in my little Chicago neighborhood. I guess that’s to be expected in an area where I’d say roughly 60% of the population is over 60, but that doesn’t make the “For Sale” signs that pop up outside my neighbors’ houses with startling frequency any less disturbing. Maybe they're just migrating to Evanston, but I have a pretty good idea that they're more likely headed for the great suburb in the sky.
That’s mighty sad, not just because of the loss of life, but also because each abandoned 80-year-old bungalow of two-flat opens a space for the forces of gentrification to roll in and slap together one of those appalling yuppie condos that will eventually transform Jefferson Park into yet another pocket of Midwestern hipster blandness. I plan on being long gone before any of that takes place, but I'm still saddened due to my notorious inability to accept any kind of change. Death is a particularly tough type of change for me, as it tends to be stubbornly permanent.
But things do change and people do die, as I've been reminded by several visits to Graceland Cemetery over in Wrigleyville. Despite the name, the place has nothing to do with Elvis, although it houses a host of self-proclaimed kings. This was and is the cemetery of choice for Chicago’s truly wealthy, from turn-of-the-century slaughterhouse stewards to modern day stock market scions. These people memorialized themselves in jaw-dropping style, with enormous pillars, eight-foot angels, and mausoleums considerably larger than most apartments I've lived in. it’s a spectacular display of post-mortem one-upmanship, with long-forgotten families competing for the most ornate commemoration. One clan apparently commissioned a private island, accessible by a narrow footbridge along the edge of the cemetery’s sizable pond, I assume to separate themselves that much more from the common rabble.
Strolling through Graceland is certainly an awesome experience, but it’s also a sad and sobering one. It all just seems so futile, these ostentatious displays intended to establish oneself as an eternal social better. Turning even death into a competition — and an aggressive, questionably tasteful competition at that — is so very Chicago. It’s a dog-eat-dog own, and apparently, these dogs keep gnawing even after they’ve ripped out each other’s throats.
This cemetery sojourn inevitably turned my mind to New Orleans and its “Cities of the Dead,” like St. Louis Cemetery down in the old Storyville neighborhood. Everybody knows about the famous above-ground cemeteries of New Orleans. They’re like nothing else most people have ever seen, and they’ve spawned their own little cottage industry with tours, t-shirts, and all the trimmings. They’re every bit as unique as the macabre mansions of Graceland, yet there is an inherent modesty about them.
The aboveground tomb is, of course, a gruesome necessity due to the city’s unusual water table. It is also an ideal canvas for glory-seekers, with much more room for expression than your basic headstone. And yet, with some exceptions, these are relatively humble structures, often arranged haphazardly within the cemetery, showing visible evidence of the wear and tear of time. They draw plenty of curiosity seekers, sure, but I doubt many of them leave feeling ashamed for letting their grandparents go into the ground with just their names and dates on a two-foot slab of marble.
That notion, in turn, puts me in the mind of another, somewhat less iconic New Orleanian resting place, that being the Potter’s Field out behind Delgado University. Here is a place that can really make a person value life, a desolate range of bizarre memorials, untended graves and plywood headstones emblazoned with misspelled words. Just about the only impressive-looking structure by traditional standards is a large headstone bestowed posthumously on jazz legend Buddy Bolden, who died penniless in an insane asylum and was originally discarded in one of the many unmarked graves.
The first reaction is to dismiss it as a sad dumping ground for forgotten souls, but a closer look reveals that a good number of these graves are being kept up quite regularly. Wander around a while longer and you'll see a steady trickle of loved ones checking in on the recently deceased, and you’ll start to realize that people are still being buried here, people with either the cash nor the inclination to put on airs now that they’ve moved on to the next stage, whatever that may be. And suddenly this little plot of land starts to take on not sadness but dignity. Here is an acknowledgment of the permanence of death, a reminder of the futility of excessive memorialization. When you're gone, you're gone, at least as far as this life is concerned, and all the pyramids and pillars money can but won't make a lick of difference.
I've spent a good bit of time pondering this topic lately, and the thought that sticks with me is this: I remember a lot of grave markers in each of these three cemeteries, some in greater detail than others, but other than Buddy Bolden, I couldn’t tell you single name I saw on any one of them. Maybe, in the end, we’re all anonymous no matter where they chuck our bones.
Ira Brooker is a freelance columnist currently residing in Chicago. He would prefer not to be buried in any cemetery, as he generally dislikes the company of the living and can't imagine situations improving after death. he requests his body simply be left in the woods somewhere, or, failing that, stuffed and mounted in the Where Y’at office.