By Sergio Barreto

Most people don’t think of cemeteries as living places. Visitors at Graceland come to pay their respects to a loved one, or to track down famous gravestones. But those who know where to look find plenty of life.

“Look at this tree,” says bird-watcher Tadas Birutis, pointing to an old oak. “See all those identical holes on it? The holes are fresh. That means a yellow-billed sapsucker has been here recently. They dig these holes and fly away, waiting for bugs to get trapped in the tree’s juice, then come back to eat the bugs.”

The expected sapsucker never shows up, but Birutis is patient. The ornate mausoleums fail to capture his attention. Soon he’s excitedly crouching in front of a row of bushes. “You can usually expect to find a bird under a bush,” he says. And sure enough, a pair of starlings comes hopping out.

Birutis, who lives three blocks from Graceland, often gets up early to search the cemetery for migratory birds. “Morning is the best time to catch them,” he says. “They’re up and running because they’re hungry, and during migration they’re especially hungry because they’ve just flown in.”

At the cemetery’s north wall, Birutis points to what he calls “the most deceiving real estate ad in Chicago”: a large sign outside a new condo building on Montrose promises “expansive views of forested acres.”

Trying to sell a cemetery as a park is only deceiving up to a point; if you can ignore the stone monuments, most cemeteries look like parks, offering city dwellers contact with nature. But for Birutis and others like him, a cemetery is often preferable to a park. Green space is rare in an urban setting, they say, and should be used not only for human enjoyment but as a sustainable environment for wildlife.

At a park, there are bikers, joggers, ballplayers, rollerbladers, and screaming children. But once you’ve walked far enough into a cemetery–like Graceland or Mount Olive or Bohemian National or Rosehill–all you can hear are birds chirping. “Most of the people here are quiet, not by choice,” Birutis says. “These people can’t bother the birds.”

On a spring afternoon a cemetery stroller encounters not only a variety of birds but a raccoon or two, maybe a woodchuck or a turtle, and definitely geese, sometimes in the middle of the road. Deer, foxes, and coyotes are less common, but cemetery frequenters all seem to have stories about encounters with animals you’re just not supposed to see in an urban area.

Birutis’s bird tally after this late April visit to Graceland: 157, including migrants like a pied-billed grebe, a hermit thrush, and three ruby-crowned kinglets.

The first city cemetery was established in 1843; it covered 60 acres near the lakefront. Many residents feared it was overcrowded and likely to spread waterborne diseases. The bodies interred there were transferred to Graceland in 1860, and the old city cemetery became what is now Lincoln Park.

Originally Graceland and the other large cemeteries were located outside the city limits, and they were eventually engulfed as the city grew outward. Now real estate developers have designs on north-side cemeteries. Some of these might end up shrinking, while others could even disappear.

Sauganash Village resident Walter Krawiec started birding 35 years ago at the Bohemian National, Montrose, and Saint Lucas cemeteries in the area around Foster and Pulaski. “I’ve seen some birds in the cemeteries that I haven’t seen in La Bagh Woods,” he says, referring to the adjacent forest preserve.

Eric Latturner, who grew up near Rosehill in the 1970s, remembers running through the woods at the cemetery’s western edge with his childhood buddies. “We went hunting for snakes, moth cocoons,” he says. “They also had walking sticks and some pheasants. We were usually run off by the management. They didn’t want young kids there.”

Chicago Audubon Society president Jerry Garden says he made a habit of visiting Montrose Cemetery daily in the winter of 1988 to see a pair of subarctic great horned owls. “They are pretty rare around here, and they usually establish territories of a half mile to two miles–but due to urban pressure, I guess you could call it, they were nesting within a hundred yards from each other,” he says.

Garden thinks cemeteries are an underutilized asset in large cities like Chicago. “Why can’t a school have a field trip to a cemetery?” he asks. “That would be a great way to get kids to see nature and to understand that a cemetery is not something to be afraid of.”

Nathan Aaberg of Friends of the River suggests that making a cemetery animal friendly may even be a good marketing move. “If you have a cemetery that’s attractive and people want to visit it in life, maybe they’ll want to go there in death.”

But from the perspective of cemetery administrators, the woods and marshland that attract wildlife are unproductive assets because no one gets buried there. Every few years a good chunk of cemetery is swallowed by a residential or commercial development, usually eliciting gripes from both neighborhood residents and nature enthusiasts.

More than a decade ago, Montrose Cemetery, at 5400 N. Pulaski, sold a portion of its property facing Bryn Mawr; that parcel later became the Sauganash Homes development. Krawiec calls the sale “a disgrace, and it set a precedent. After that people thought they could come here and take a piece of a cemetery.”

“That was a wonderful chunk of land,” recalls Krawiec’s friend, Donald Brenner. “It was marshland, at least some of it. Sometimes you had to wear rubber boots back there. I don’t come much to the area anymore. It’s unpleasant. They’ve lost much land for migrating birds.”

Officials at Montrose Cemetery declined to comment. “I’m not at liberty to divulge what the board of directors thinks about this,” said a woman who refused to identify herself. “This is a private enterprise and what goes on here is nobody’s business.”

Krawiec blames the deal on former alderman Anthony Laurino. “The Laurinos promised over and over that they would fight anything that would destroy the habitat, change the neighborhood, and in the end they perpetrated this insidious betrayal of the whole neighborhood.”

Laurino was succeeded as alderman by his daughter Margaret. In the early 90s, developers wanted to buy a parcel of Saint Lucas Cemetery to accommodate a Jewel and a strip mall at the northwest corner of Foster and Pulaski.

“I tried and tried to get the forest preserve to buy that land,” says Krawiec, who organized neighborhood opposition. “They said they couldn’t do it because they could only use pristine land. I thought that was a load of hogwash.”

Tom Nelson, executive director of the Devon North Town Business and Professional Association, recalls how the developers overcame a potential stumbling block. “According to Burnham’s 1909 city plan, these cemeteries were designated as open land and were not to be touched, but they found a precedent,” he says. “There was this auto place at the southeast corner of Foster and Pulaski that was built on land that used to house livery stables that served the cemeteries in the old days. They said, ‘If they can build an auto place on cemetery land, we can build a Jewel’ and they got the zoning change approved.”

“That just broke my heart,” Krawiec says. “That was a very diverse area, with open fields, beautiful oaks….They knocked it all down to the ground. I used to be able to find yellow-crowned night herons there. That’s a southern bird that you hardly ever see around here. I believe it’s on the endangered species list. The last time I saw one was about five years ago, which was about the time they put that Jewel there.”

“You get rid of that one tree that has that one bug that brings that one bird here, and you’ll never see that bird again,” says Tadas Birutis. “It’s so interconnected.”

At roughly the same time that a portion of Saint Lucas was handed over to make way for the Jewel, part of Mount Olive Cemetery, 3800 N. Narragansett, was taken over for a residential development. “They sold a good chunk of land,” says area resident Ralph Herbst, “enough to put 20 houses in. The area had high grass, blue spruces, some nice pines. I wouldn’t say that wrecked the whole environment, but it did make a big difference. I’ve heard rumors that Wright College wants to expand and is eyeing some cemetery land.”

Mount Olive administrator Cindy Taylor dismisses the rumors, saying she hasn’t been approached by the college. “I was gone from here for a while when they sold that land five years ago, so I can’t comment on that,” she says. “When I came back things were different. We have this road that you can drive down and see graves on one side and houses on the other. I personally think it’s rather strange, but if people want to live here I guess they’re welcome to.”

Every so often a rumor surfaces that a developer wants to buy a chunk of Bohemian National Cemetery, 5255 N. Pulaski. Usually these rumors have town homes going up on a picturesque strip along the Chicago River. “I haven’t heard that rumor for a while,” says Helen Sclair, aka the “cemetery lady.” Sclair’s a retired schoolteacher who’s been studying Chicago’s burial grounds for 26 years. She teaches two seminars at the Newberry Library on the history of the city’s cemeteries. Sclair says it would be unwise to build residential homes in that part of Bohemian National. “That parcel of land is low and has a river running through it,” she says. “It’s known to flood and to be covered with ice banks during winter.”

Sclair says two years ago Skokie’s Memorial Park cemetery was threatened with outright extinction. “I guess they needed another mall across the street from Old Orchard,” she scoffs.

Though she has nothing against nature enthusiasts who view cemeteries as wildlife habitats, she feels burial grounds have a far more important function. “We need places to bury people,” she says. “People die every day, but now there’s this perception that it’s OK to sell cemetery land because everyone’s being cremated. They’re not. Muslims will not be cremated. Orthodox Jews will not be cremated. Eastern Orthodox Christians will not be cremated. There’s many native kinds of people in America who are not into cremation. Catholics–although the pope has said cremation is OK–many of them still won’t do it.”

She explains the city has a financial incentive to allow cemetery land to be gobbled up by developers. “Cemeteries are tax exempt,” she says. “That’s why the town of Lake View at first wasn’t eager to have Graceland being established there–they didn’t want to see all that land being taken off the tax rolls. If a developer comes along and wants to buy cemetery land, the government can start assessing real estate taxes on the land. The dead can’t complain, so business goes on as usual.”

At 350 acres, Rosehill, 5800 N. Ravenswood, is Chicago’s largest cemetery, but perhaps not for long. The city has included three parcels of Rosehill–mostly along Western Avenue–in the Devon and Western Redevelopment Project Area Tax Increment Finance Program. The TIF’s boundaries are Foster on the south, Devon on the north, Kedzie on the west, and Ashland on the east.

The inclusion of Rosehill is a shame, say nature enthusiasts, some of whom point out that the cemetery probably harbors more wildlife than any other in the area. Its bird population is so diverse that the Audubon Society schedules spring field trips to Rosehill. Two bird-watching walks have already been conducted this year, and a comprehensive survey of the cemetery’s bird population is under way.

“Different Rosehill owners have had different attitudes towards birders,” says Eric Latturner. “The current management has had an on-and-off relationship with us.” The walk several weeks ago was the first one to be sanctioned by management in years.

The snakes, walking sticks, and pheasants Latturner used to see as a child appear to be gone. Judy Pollock, president of the Bird Conservation Network, remembers a den of foxes that made Rosehill its home in the late 1980s. “Baby foxes were sighted there,” she says. “To the best of my knowledge, they haven’t been seen recently. Coyotes have been sighted there more frequently lately, but to attribute the foxes’ disappearance to them may be a stretch.”

Not so, says Latturner. “The coyotes brought distemper with them, and the foxes died. That may not have been such a bad thing, because apparently they were overpopulating the area. Management was pretty stringent about not letting people go into the woods when they were around–I guess it was kind of a liability.”

Rosehill is also known for its snapping turtles. “There are several ponds there, and you can find turtles in just about every one of them,” says Ralph Herbst. “It may be a good idea for management to put up signs warning people not to touch those things, because they can seriously hurt you.”

Today raccoons are Rosehill’s most conspicuous residents. Audubon’s Jerry Garden, who also grew up in the area, claims the raccoon population has fluctuated throughout the years. Last year it peaked, he says. Every night last fall you’d drive along Western and see two or three dozen people huddled by the cemetery fence. Apparently an area resident had noticed a few dozen raccoons running through the trees that line Rosehill’s western border and brought friends along to take a look. Within a week, “going to see the raccoons” became a nightly neighborhood ritual. Cars would stop and unload excited children toting bags of chips and peanuts to feed the critters. There was a hole in the fence, and some of the raccoons–who are usually skittish–became accustomed enough to their audience to venture onto the sidewalk and eat out of the hands of children.

“I’m their biggest fan,” said area resident Wilson Juarez last fall. “There must be hundreds of them. I come out to see them every night, but now it’s getting a little too much. There’s too many people coming out here. Many of them don’t even live around here and they don’t show respect for the animals or the neighborhood.” He was pointing to a pile of discarded plastic wrappers on the sidewalk. The raccoons and their littering admirers slowly disappeared as winter crept along, but now the raccoons are making a comeback–just not in large enough numbers to draw the neighborhood’s attention again.

Last year’s boom was propelled by the unique habitat in this part of Rosehill. Looking into the cemetery from Western, you see nothing but trees. The area tends to flood when it rains, and if you enter the cemetery and walk into the northern end of the woods, you’ll find a gully with a pond–a sanctuary just a stone’s throw away from the road. There are numerous birds and rabbits, as well as turtles and raccoons.

“I can’t say for sure, but I have a strong suspicion that’s a natural pond, unlike most of the ones you find in cemeteries,” said Owen McHugh, a longtime birder in Rosehill.

According to the Devon and Western TIF plan prepared last July by the consulting firm Louik/Schneider & Associates Inc., the woodlands area is “unimproved cemetery property and is included within the boundaries of the Redevelopment Project area.” The plan describes approved uses for that land as “an open space land…a nature preserve, a nature conservancy area, a public park or a forest preserve and associated off-street parking.”

The TIF was approved by the City Council on November 3. Rosehill general manager Ron Graeff referred questions to the cemetery’s owner, Service Corporation, but calls to its Houston headquarters were not returned.

Chicago Department of Planning spokesperson Becky Carroll says the city plans to preserve the woodlands “as is,” which overlooks the project’s goal of creating a parking area. Jerry Garden warns that taking cemetery land that functions as an unofficial forest preserve and making it official may very well hurt the wildlife there. “You get lots more people walking through the area, and that can bring noise, litter,” he says. “It is possible to love a place to death.”

The two other parcels of Rosehill that are included in the TIF plan aren’t particularly significant from an environmental standpoint. First, there’s the parcel just north of the woods, currently an open field stretching to Peterson. The permitted land use for that parcel, according to the plan, is “a commercial use consisting of funeral home with off-street parking.” How useful that would be is debatable, since there’s already a funeral home with off-street parking seven blocks south.

The last parcel of Rosehill that’s slated for “redevelopment” is a hilly area at the southwest edge of the cemetery that contains no graves and had been coveted by developers in the past. Someone wanted to put a supermarket there ten years ago and gave up in the face of neighborhood protests.

Rosehill Cemetery Company filed a Declaration of Covenants and Restrictions dated June 11, 1990, and the Devon and Western TIF plan states that pursuant to that document, the southwestern parcel of Rosehill “can be developed for certain other uses.” Those “other uses” are later defined by the plan as “including the following institutional uses: a private or public school, a retirement home, a nursing home or other health care facility, a church, a synagogue or other place of worship and associated off-street parking.”

“We will consult the neighborhood to determine which use for this land will be most beneficial,” says the Department of Planning’s Carroll. “Nothing has been determined yet on that front.” She says the unoccupied cemetery land isn’t zoned for burial. The city will pay for the land, though Carroll says no price has been set yet.

Helen Sclair says the city will rue the day they pushed through projects on cemetery land. “Lack of forethought,” she maintains. “Chicago’s population is growing, and we’re all going to die someday.”

Owen McHugh is more concerned about the possible loss of habitat for Rosehill’s birds. “I’ve seen nesting bluebirds there,” he says. “You certainly don’t see those in Lincoln Park. I’m not about to grab a picket sign and go tell people they can’t do this, but it’s upsetting.

“I’ve seen some species at Rosehill that I haven’t seen anywhere else in Chicago, and I think it’s important to preserve that habitat, especially for migrants.”

“I don’t trust the city or developers,” says Donald Brenner, still reeling from the loss of the Montrose marshlands. “If there’s a piece of land by a major thoroughfare that they can grab, they will, because someone needs to make money off of it. And why is it that city planners only want to use open land for recreational purposes, bike riding, picnics? We want our scarce open land to be anything but animal habitat.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.