By Dawn DuBois
There are two things I have always thought of when I have heard the word “Graceland”. One, of course, is Elvis Presley’s home in Memphis, Tennessee. The other is what has been called “The Mount Auburn of Chicago”, a beautiful and historic cemetery that has held my attention for some years. Finally, I can say I have seen both now and while both are interesting and great in their own way. I must say that, I was blown away by the cemetery. Well, that’s a taphophile for you.
My husband and I had decided to take a small trip to Chicago for a few days. Since we would also be taking our six year old son along with us, we decided to plan our trip around family friendly things. We went to the Shedd Aquarium, we swam in the hotel pool, but before we even got to the hotel, our first stop was Graceland Cemetery. It’s located at 401 N. Clark Street, Chicago, IL, 60613. We were coming from southern Michigan, and quite frankly, I think we made our trip a lot more difficult then it needed to be. Somehow we got turned around three or four times. In retrospect, this cemetery is not, and should not be, hard for anyone else to find at all.
In 1860, a prominent Chicago lawyer named Thomas Bryan established Graceland. He purchased its original 80 acres and received a perpetual charter from Illinois in 1861. Soon after that he hired well known architect H.W.S. Cleveland to plan out its park like atmosphere.
I grew up in a small rural area where we have a lot of cemeteries, but none are what I would consider park like. Even our larger cemeteries are still fairly small scale to what people in big cities are used to. Aside from going to a well-known and historical cemetery, my family and I were looking forward to seeing a truly well landscaped setting, and possibly our first large scale monuments. Graceland Cemetery is 119 acres in all. Along with being known just for its beauty in the landscaping, hence the Mount Auburn nickname, it has also been called “The Cemetery of Architects.” First, architect Cleveland, which, in the 1870’s, saw the cemetery’s paths and plots uniformly sodded, and the fenced and curbed plot boundaries eliminated. This helped created the Victorian park style atmosphere. Later this look was enhanced by Ossian Simonds. His innovative design used native plants to create the cemetery’s pastoral landscape, which today makes it one of the most beautiful places in Chicago for residents and tourists to visit.
The first thing we did when we got there was to go to the office. You must be rung in, but if you go there during business hours there will be someone there to assist you. The staff in the office was very friendly, even to a group of straggly looking tourists whose first question was “Where are the bathrooms?”
A friendly woman gave me a copy of the cemetery map, which has points of interest, and gave us a print out with facts on it. The office also has some books for sale and I highly recommend buying one they have called “A Walk through Graceland Cemetery. A Chicago Architecture Foundation Tour” By Barbara Lanctot. Well worth the ten dollars cost. The information is extensive, the pictures are great, and the map is well drawn inside.
Two things I noticed right away. One, the cemetery closed at 4:30 pm. No ifs, ands or buts. If your car was inside when they closed the gates, your car would be impounded. Unfortunately by the time we had gotten there, it was already 1:00 pm, so I knew there was going to be a lot of the cemetery we weren’t going to get to explore. Plus, it was sort of cold, and very windy day. Well, that just gives us a reason to return one day! The second thing I noticed was that the cemetery groundskeepers are hyper vigilant. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but we had only been in the cemetery 20 minutes when we were asked to move our car farther from the grass, if I was going to do any rubbings, and if I was the one who had moved that wreath from that tomb? (The answer to the last two questions were no, by the way). We were then informed we had better not do any of things, or we could, and I quote, “hit the bricks.” While I can only imagine the constant fear of vandalism, I was a little taken aback, having never dreamed of causing any kind of ruckus. But, again, the cemetery caretaker of a large urban cemetery must have it rough.
There are so many beautiful monuments there. To a small town girl, there were some that looked like they came straight from the ruins of Greece. We were awed by what we were seeing.
If ancient Greece doesn’t appeal to you, look across the street, and experience a taste of Egypt, on a smaller scale.
Allen Pinkerton, the founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency is buried in Graceland Cemetery, as well as George Pullman, the inventor of the sleeping car for trains. There is also a well-known ghost story about a little girl named Inez who was killed in a bad storm. Now, when the weather turns nasty, her statue over her grave disappears from its glass case and can be seen walking the grounds of Graceland Cemetery.
One of Graceland Cemetery’s most famous statues is known as “the Statue of Death”, though the real name of the sculpture is “Eternal Silence” This bronze figure was sculpted in 1909 by Lorado Taft. It marks the resting place of Dexter Graves, one of Chicago’s early settlers. Due to the way bronze ages, the statue turned green, whiles its face, set in a depth to be more protected, turned a dark black.
Graceland Cemetery is definitely a beautiful place to visit, and we hope to make another trip there. Going in the spring or fall, when the leaves and flowers are at their peak color, would be a sight to behold. However, I am glad to have been able to see this even a little bit for now.