Chicago’s Valley of the Kings at Graceland Cemetery

Creepy statue of a hooded figure

I first met the grim reaper when I was in 4th grade. I was on a school field trip when I suddenly saw him. He was covered in a thick green shroud. Plus he stood more than ten feet tall, almost floating over a sea of tombstones. Brooding and quiet, his dark spooky gaze seemed to be watching me no matter where I stood. At the time I froze in horror. This was, of course, the famous statue of Eternal Silence at Graceland Cemetery. He’s impressively creepy. So I was delighted, oh so delighted, to introduce my wife to this childhood horror many years later. Graceland Cemetery is a special place like that.

Spend the Day of the Dead here

Emily and I visited Graceland Cemetery on the Day of the Dead (of course) for a fun, slightly morbid afternoon exploring Chicago history. I’m a history nerd and genealogist, so I like walking around old boneyards, especially one full of Chicago’s robber barons and crusaders. Emily was practicing her photography while we wandered about. This is a terrific place to take photos. While any time of the year is good, my favorite time to see Graceland is during the fall. The autumn colors really bring out the cemetery’s melancholy beauty.

Graceland Cemetery is one of the oldest and most famous cemeteries in Chicago. Located on the city’s northside, at Clark & Irving Park, it’s among the first modern, intentionally park-like cemeteries. When it was established in 1860, it was well outside of city limits. Since then the city has crept up all around it. Graceland’s sprawling lawns are contained by thick brick walls. There’s only one entrance. This, and all the beautiful old trees, make it a peaceful and serene place. It seems so removed from the city that it’s unbelievable that it’s within blocks of Wrigley Field and Andersonville.

A Victorian Necropolis

There are so many famous Gilded Age greats buried here that it’s like a midwestern Valley of the Kings. Oh, don’t believe me? Wait until you see the pyramids and the obelisks. Unlike ancient Egyptian burials, the treasures are on the outside, being the very monuments themselves. All of the great builders, captains of industry, and political bosses, seemingly all of the names of Chicago’s streets and landmarks are on the tombstones here. Names like McCormick, Kimball, Armour, Field, Busse, and Wacker. This is where they all sleep. And how do they sleep! Their monuments range from the grandiose to the gaudy. Often it’s both. Even while being worm food, they’re still competing for status.

One of the most outlandish-looking mausoleums is the Schoenhofen pyramid. Peter Schoenhofen was evidently a Victorian-era pharaoh. Yet a quick look at his biography says that when he died in 1893, he was a king of beer. His brewery, the now-defunct Schoenhofen Brewing Company, was a Chicago favorite for more than a century.

Henry Hamilton Honoré was a well-connected real estate developer. His mausoleum looks like a miniature gothic cathedral. For some reason there’s flying babyheads on it.

I’d never seen an Art Deco-styled tomb before I saw the John S. Holmes Mausoleum. I love the look, but I can’t help but wonder if this tomb should have theater lights and a show.

George M. Pullman’s elegant column doesn’t show just how well-buried he is. Pullman was the inventor and manufacturer of the famous Pullman Sleeping Car. Pullman found everlasting infamy in 1894, for cheating his workers during an economic downturn. His ruthless business practices led to a nation-wide railroad strike, which was violently suppressed. So three years later when he died, the few people who still liked him had his remains encased in tar, asphalt, steel rails, and reinforced concrete. This was to prevent his corpse from being dug up.

Personality in life and death

Other graves aren’t so grand. Instead they show some personality. I like the understated tombstone slab for Ludwig Mies van der Rohes, an architect famous for his “less is more” designs. Then there’s the island grave for Daniel Burnham, the man who made Chicago beautiful. You have to cross a small bridge to see his resting place. As he’s the father of the Chicago lakefront, it’s fitting that he’s got a little waterfront of his own.

The most unusual tombstone I’ve ever seen is that of Matt Rizzo. He was a scholar of classic literature and philosophy. He was also blind, and his tombstone is partially inscribed with braille.

Marshall Field, the department store magnate and museum benefactor, and his family are buried far more simply than I would have expected. Their only monument is a statue of a sad-looking woman sitting by a reflecting pool.

Stand six feet away from history’s greats

Then there’s the historical graves. They don’t look fancy, but that doesn’t matter. What’s exciting is who is buried there. There’s the grave of John Kinzie, the first white settler to Chicago and one of the city’s founders. After him, I couldn’t miss the grave of Allan Pinkerton, the famous detective and spy who established the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. In 1861, during the early days of the Civil War, Pinkerton successfully protected president-elect Abraham Lincoln from an assassination conspiracy in Baltimore. A number of Pinkerton employees are buried here, including Kate Warne, the first female detective in America.

Some souls still haunt us

Finally there are a few mysterious graves. The best one to see is that of Inez Clarke. Her grave has a delicate statue in her likeness, protected under a glass box. Inez was apparently killed by a lightening strike. What’s weird is that there’s now some doubts on whether she ever existed in the first place. At any rate, there’s rumors about hauntings. Some people claim to have seen the ghost of a weeping little Inez. My favorite rumor is that Inez’s statue comes to life during bad storms and roams the cemetery.

Tips for your grave-seeking adventure

Be sure to stop by the visitor center (get buzzed in) for free maps, to ask questions, and to use the clean public restrooms. A map is essential because Graceland is huge. There’s no way to find anything without it. Unfortunately the map has only some of the famous burials on it, so do some homework before visiting by looking up FindAGrave.com’s list. Some of Graceland’s other famous residents include Roger Ebert (film critic), John Jones (the first black elected office-holder in Cook County after the Great Fire), Jack Johnson (the first black heavyweight boxing champion), John Nash Ott (time-lapse photography pioneer), and Harold Goettler (WWI hero and Medal of Honor recipient).

Six columns overlooking a pond

Potter Palmer family columns

Graceland Cemetery
4001 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL 60613
(the main entrance is at N. Clark St. & W. Irving Park Rd.)
773-525-1105
www.gracelandcemetery.org
open 8am-4pm daily (but the office is closed on Sundays)
recommend about 2-4 hours to visit
admission and parking are free

*****
TOMB of a millionaire,
A multi-millionaire, ladies and gentlemen,
Place of the dead where they spend every year
The usury of twenty-five thousand dollars
For upkeep and flowers
To keep fresh the memory of the dead.
The merchant prince gone to dust
Commanded in his written will
Over the signed name of his last testament
Twenty-five thousand dollars be set aside
For roses, lilacs, hydrangeas, tulips,
For perfume and color, sweetness of remembrance
Around his last long home.

—“Graceland” by Carl Sandburg