There are countless cemeteries in Chicago, but few as remarkable as Graceland, Rosehill and Bohemian National. The Getaway Guys visited all three in late 2011. The final park-like resting places of Chicago’s luminaries were interesting to visit, but the Guys were more intrigued by the sculpture and architecture of the dead. Sculpture abounds, but architecture in the form of mausoleums is less abundant, due in large part to the cost involved. The word “mausoleum” comes from the tomb of the Persian King Mausolus (377-353 B.C.), a massive structure considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
In time, the Romans adopted the use of mausoleums, as can be seen along the Appian Way. The biggest and most famous still extant is the tomb of the Emperor Hadrian (76-138 A.D.), now called the Castel Sant’Angelo (the fortress of the Pope). It stands next to the Vatican.
For some the subject of cemeteries may seem morbid. Yes, cemeteries are dedicated to the deceased, but they are also devoted to the living, since they are places where those celebrating life can observe in solitude and quiet those who came before. From the early 19th century to the early 20th century in America, urban cemeteries were popular gathering spots for leisure pastimes. Public parks were virtually non-existent until the late 19th century, so cemeteries provided a getaway from urban congestion. They were country-like settings in which to hike and/or picnic.
Graceland, Rosehill and Bohemian National were all created around the same time, c.1859. Alarmed about health issues related to Lake Michigan’s water supply, Chicago officials closed “in-town” cemeteries and transferred the deceased to the outer reaches of Chicago. And although the city now surrounds Graceland, Rosehill and Bohemian National, the land acquired and developed was considered to be a safe distance away.
Of the three, Graceland is the most celebrated. It was the preferred burial site of Chicago’s elite. Rosehill is equally celebrated, but slightly more egalitarian. Bohemian National was/is in essence an ethnic cemetery, a coveted burial site for Chicago’s large Bohemian population (not the artist type).
All three contain mausoleums, but Graceland is distinctive. Its elite “residents” commissioned architects to design their final resting places, some quite grandiose. Bohemian National contains a welter of funerary sculpture, while Rosehill is represented by both, if in more subdued quantity.
By a wide margin, the most prevalent mausoleum architectural style is Classical with columns and pediments aplenty. Second would seem to be Egyptian with pyramidal motifs and sphinxes. Here and there Gothic designs can be found, but not in large numbers. Lastly, there are some Art Deco or Art Moderne mausoleums. Associated with permanence or life in the hereafter, the Egyptian mode seems to make more sense than the Classical with its pagan connotations. The scarcity of Gothic is somewhat surprising. Relevant to religious fervor a la European cathedral design, one might have predicted its favor. The preference for Art Deco/Art Moderne may have been about being “with it,” even in death.
The majority of the sculptures found in all three were carved in stone by skilled journeymen stone cutters. At Graceland, Rosehill and Bohemian Nation identical angels (big and small) can be found along with numerous allegorical figures representing grief and hope. More than likely, these “sculptors” used sample books and pointing devices to guide them in producing multiple images of the same subject. Probably many were immigrant Europeans trained abroad. They were skilled, but anonymous.
From New England to the South where most prominent American sculptors worked, examples of their funerary endeavors are fairly common. Oddly, despite Chicago’s wealth, few examples by famous American sculptors appear to exist here. Graceland is an exception with a work by Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) commemorating Marshall Field (1834-1906) and “Eternal Silence” by Lorado Taft (1860-1936) for Dexter Graves (1789-1844).
The French piece is evocative in its solemnity, but the Taft work is downright spooky and very definitive in its representation of closure. Perhaps not coincidentally, Taft’s representation shares an affinity with Augustus St. Gauden’s Adams Memorial in Washington, D. C. Alan thought “Eternal Silence” by Taft eerie. “It is supposed to be,” Neil observed.
In terms of architecture and sculpture, Graceland, Rosehill and Bohemian National are unique among Chicago’s many cemeteries. Ignoring death, the cemeteries are actually pleasant places to visit and filled with interesting information. For a change, Neil and Alan did not find much to disagree about, except Alan could not fathom a picnic in such surroundings.
Editor’s Note: The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.