It was mid-December, 2011, and a dusting of snow coated the gravestones as Jerry and I entered the Bohemian National Cemetery through a beautiful gothic gate. My friend Jerry Schenwar and I enjoy visiting Chicagoland cemeteries. We are not morbid, but we are curious. We find the markers, memorials and mausoleums of these cemeteries to be of great historic interest.
Bohemian National Cemetery was founded in 1877 by a group of free-thinking Czechs who emigrated from the region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire known as Bohemia. These Czechs, the majority of them with Protestant backgrounds, did not find the Chicago Catholic cemeteries that catered to the mostly Catholic Central and Eastern European immigrants especially welcoming to their burial needs. So they established their own cemetery. Most of the Bohemian community at that time lived in the Pilsen neighborhood on the near South Side, but they took trolleys and later on buses or drove private cars to visit loved ones interred at Bohemian National, located about a dozen miles from Pilsen at Foster and Pulaski (then Crawford) on the North Side.
Walking through the cemetery you see mostly Czech names, like Novak, Dvorak and Novotny on the gravestones. But the grounds and services of Bohemian National are open to all people. In fact, the Indian community is one of the biggest users of the crematorium for its traditional Hindu funeral rites. Bohemian National is operated by a not-for-profit association, independent of the corporation that seems to have a monopoly on most Chicago area cemeteries.
As Jerry and I walked along the cemetery’s paths, we came across the mausoleum of Anton Cermak, the once powerful Chicago mayor who was fatally wounded by an assassin’s bullet meant for President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, while both men were together in Miami, Florida. Later on that year, President Roosevelt, accompanied by the First Lady, laid a wreath at the foot of Cermak’s mausoleum. A photo of that event is prominently featured in the cemetery’s main office.
We also came across an amazing site that gave new meaning to the term “die-hard Cub fan.” Cub fans have created a final resting place for their own at Bohemian National. They erected a stone monument with a painted view of the ivy-colored centerfield wall at Wrigley Field, complete with bleacher seats and scoreboard above it. Burial vaults holding the remains of loyal Cub fans are encased inside the monument. Each vault has a plaque affixed to it with a personalized Cub remembrance such as “I saw Ruth and Gehrig play at Wrigley.” Grandstand seats original to Wrigley Field and permanently removed during a renovation face the front of the monument.
Nearly 150 victims of the Eastland Disaster lie buried at Bohemian National, as many of the passengers on that ill-fated pleasure boat that sank in the Chicago River in 1915 came from Czech families. The Kolar family who rented their house on DeKoven Street to Mrs. O’Leary of Chicago Fire legend is entombed in a large mausoleum.
As we left Bohemian National on that cold Saturday morning, Jerry and I once again realized that a walk through a Chicago cemetery is a walk through Chicago history. Driving home, we wondered what cemetery we would visit next.