I have already written about my love of cemeteries as a place of rest, meditation and a new perspective on life. When Jesse suggests that I go to Graceland Cemetery on the Northside of the city, I am making a note of it immediately. One of the more humid and overcast days of my stay in Chicago, I take the bus to the red line of the L and go up to Sheridan to discover the large cemetery that has been the final resting place for many a Chicagoan since after the Great Fire in 1871.
The L stop at Sheridan already puts me in a slightly pensive mood, because it is of the run-down morbidity that I love about cities in Eastern Europe. The platform is made from hard wood planks, and the stairwells are narrow and have rusty bannisters painted in red. You can see through the grid onto the mezzanines and there’s a lot of old rubbish and flaked off paint. I think it is pretty. I am not sure why.
The entrance to the cemetery is on the far side coming from the L, so that I have walk along the high brick wall for quite a while. On the Southern side there is a piece of cemetery that is seperated from the street by just a mesh wire fence, and I catch a glimpse of the first tombstones. I see many German names, a foreshadowing of what I am about to see later.
After I have found the gate and entered, I immediately feel that this place is very different from all the cemeteries I have been to in Europe. Wide asphalt streets run between large patches of grass on which the tombstones are spread out as if desultorily, aimlessly planted just anywhere. I see no system, no plan.
You can stumble upon one family, and then rush right into the next one without noticing. As I contemplate that, I like it a lot. Because what system is there to death? In the beginning I am even unsure as to whether I would be allowed to leave the asphalt street, but then I notice that most graves cannot be reached unless you walk across the lawn. So I start venturing.
I come across many sites that have massive pillars crowned with sculptures, or sumptuous sarcophagi. Most of the people have been dead for a long time, a hundred years or more. Only occasionally will I come across a grave that is adorned with fresh flowers – I read somewhere about this cemetery that its eerieness stems from the fact that most children of the dead lying here are also dead. I don’t find it that eerie, though. Probably because it is so wide and light and so little overgrown. Some of the mausoleums are almost cold and sterile – very clean.
I start thinking about wealth. What would lead someone to ask for a final resting place that had something so pompous about it? I don’t feel like I could grieve properly in any of those cold stone halls, however impressive they might be. I do like all the stones that are just laid out on the grass, shone upon by a burning sun in the sweltering heat of the day. They feel integrated into the nature of the place.
As I walk from passed life to passed life, I come to the peak of one of the soft hills. There is a bush, and a tombstone hiding away underneath it, a bit aside from all the others. It does not seem to belong to any of the families around, and it is small and simple. Unobtrusive, like the bridge I will discover half an hour later and that I have written about here. I come closer and study the stone. Across the top it says EDWARD, and on the stone it reads „Died Feb 2, 1868, Aged 19 yrs. 6 months“. I sit down.
I wonder if anyone still knows about this grave and who this boy was. I wonder if he died because he was ill, or if he had an accident, or if he was poor. I think about how he has lived to see the Civil War, and wonder if he lost his family in it. I wonder if he ever was in love, and if he ever had a first kiss or if he ever got to lose his virginity. I ask Edward all these questions, but there is no answer from the small stone. As I get up again to explore more of the cemetery, I think that for what it is worth, someone took note today of this life that once was and said a little prayer for a boy who lived a life that was too short 150 years ago.