BOHEMIAN NATIONAL CEMETERY
5255 North Pulaski
Bella Morte Rating: 4 Tombstones
For those of you who revel in the delights of an indoor mausoleum with both history and character, Bohemian National Crematorium and Mausoleum is a destination not to be missed. Upon entering the building, you are immediately enveloped by the aura of quiet and calm. Walls of beautiful, though not particularly unusual, glass-front niches rise to your right and left while a large, round seating area with a domed ceiling and wooden benches for memorial services lies directly ahead. During the course of our research on the mausoleum, we came across photos of the most unique glass-front niche rooms we had yet encountered and we were at first perplexed on not seeing them anywhere; however, a bit more exploration led us to heavy velvet curtains behind which lay the rooms for which we had been searching.
What an amazing site. The rooms contain what can best be described as a "library of lives" -- scores of glass front niches, each decorated by the families of the deceased, some lined in satin, others in velvet. Most contain photos and personal mementos and many hold unique urns as well. One of the rooms also features large wooden benches which, along with the richly carved wood niches, adds to the library-like feel and invites visitors to sit awhile in quiet contemplation.
Aside from the mausoleum, Bohemian National also features several unique bronze figures and a number of graves bearing ceramic portraits of the deceased. Images of little children and women in bridal attire gaze out at visitors, timeless and unchanged through the decades.
Approximately 150 of the 844 victims of the Eastland Disaster are buried at Bohemian, giving the cemetery the distinction of being the final resting place for more victims of this maritime tragedy than any other graveyard. A historical marker, located at the Northeast corner of Wacker Drive at LaSalle Street in downtown Chicago, describes the disaster thus: "While still partially tied to its dock at the river's edge, the excursion steamer Eastland rolled over on the morning of July 24, 1915. The result was one of the worst maritime disasters in American history. More than eight hundred people lost their lives within a few feet of the shore. The Eastland was filled to overflowing with picnic bound Western Electric Company employees and their families when the tragedy occurred. Investigations following the disaster raised questions about the ship's seaworthiness and inspection of Great Lakes steamers in general."
Although the Board of Directors of Bohemian National Cemetery approved a motion to erect a permanent monument to the victims of the disaster in September, 1915, the plan was somehow abandoned until early 2004, when it was resurrected and, again, met with the unanimous approval of the Board. Local artist Fran Volz has been commissioned to sculpt a monument of bronze and stone which is destined for a place of honour on the cemetery grounds.
Further explorations led us to the sculpture of Death, in the form of a hooded old woman, who makes her quiet journey towards the mausoleum of the Stejskal & Buchal familes. This bronze image was designed by Albin Polasek, the same artist who created the "Mother" image which stands outside the crematorium.
Nearby, we also admired the Janovsky-Johns Mausoleum which features a granite image of a woman in a long dress and cape, hands-clasped loosely below her waist, who peers expectantly towards the crypt doors as if waiting for someone to emerge and join her at any moment.
It was in this same area that we found a most fascinating stone inscribed thus:
Helen A. Sclair
The Cemetery Lady
1930 ~ 2009
An Advocate For The Dead
A friendly groundskeeper we happened upon told us Helen is an authority on the cemetery and that we should keep an eye out for her as she is out and about quite often. He explained she wouldn't be hard to spot...we should just look for a woman in her 70's puttering about from grave to grave, keeping grass trimmed back and fresh water in the floral arrangements. Unfortunately, we did not happen upon her. A bit of internet sleuthing led us to a number of references to Ms. Sclair, however, which makes the fact Fate did not deign to have us meet that day sadder still. Helen is definitely our kind of woman!
It seems she is a celebrated authority in the field of grieving who speaks at Chicago-area seminars and symposia rather often. She also works diligently in the areas of cemetery maintenance and preservation, hence earning her the title "Advocate for the Dead." Helen has been researching death, mourning and cemeteries for decades as a form of self-administered therapy. She found comfort in this research following the death of her husband but says the fascination has been with her since childhood. She carries a photo of her tombstone in her purse and has a collection of over 7,000 cemetery postcards and various other death care related items which she stores neatly in an antique casket in her home.
And, speaking of home...as of 1999, Helen's domicile happens to be a caretaker's house right there on the grounds of Bohemian National Cemetery! Lucky lady, indeed!
Possessing a peaceful atmosphere and much to engage those who choose to visit, Bohemian National is definitely worth a stop if you are in the Chicago area.
UPDATE: R.I.P. Helen Sclair. As far as we can tell, the book Helen was working on has not been published. Click for more on Helen.