Flashback: Touring the Bohemian National Cemetery grounds with ‘Cemetery Lady’ Helen Sclair

Kori Rumore, Chicago Tribune
·12 min read

Bohemian National Cemetery, at Pulaski Road and Foster Avenue on the Northwest Side, is a burial ground that welcomes all — living and deceased. And at a time when some people might hesitate to enter a museum or enclosed space, the 124-acre site provides beautiful scenery and memorials to important people and events in Chicago history within an uncrowded space to wander about.

Your tour guide is Helen Sclair, who has counted more than 700 burial sites in the Chicago metro area and, as she stated in a tour guide of Chicago’s cemeteries that she assembled for the 1994 Association for Gravestone Studies conference, “The compiler has never seen a cemetery she didn’t like!”


Bohemian National Cemetery, where more than 120,000 people are buried, is the result of tensions between the Roman Catholic Church and local immigrants who came to Chicago from Bohemia and Moravia, now known as the Czech Republic. These immigrants, called Bohemians, were expected by the Catholic Church to make confession before death. If not, then they were banned from burial within the area’s Catholic cemeteries.

In response, Bohemians, by then embracing a more secular, independent way of life known as free thought, sought to create their own burial ground on 40 acres in Jefferson Township, which was then just a few miles north of Chicago. On Jan. 7, 1877, an assembly of Bohemian leaders and organizations decided it was time to establish their own cemetery, Bohemian National Cemetery.

Freethinking leaders involved in the cemetery’s creation are honored in Ladimir Klacel Circle, named for the Bohemian philosopher. He’s not buried here, but this bust of him was the first public monument placed within the Bohemian cemetery.

“This cemetery represents one ethnic group’s determination to acquire its own land for the burial of its own. In 1876, strong dissatisfaction with the policies of another cemetery bonded the various Bohemian fraternal organizations in the resolution to buy their own property.”","additional_properties":{"comments":1/83/8,"inline_comments":1/83/83/4,"_id":"FCKK2ZXKT5HJ3OA7ARQAEAEXGY

— Helen Sclair, "A Self-Guided Tour of the Greater Chicagoland Area Cemeteries" (1994)

Here are a few places to visit within Bohemian National Cemetery:

1. Columbarium and crematorium

Location: Between Sections Y and Z

Looking somewhat like a basilica with its domed ceiling and bell tower, the two-story limestone building provides spaces for gathering, storage of cremation urns and cremation of remains. The main level’s ceremony hall boasts a more-than-23-foot-tall ceiling, intricate ornamental decoration and stained-glass windows and has hosted funerals, speaking engagements, concerts and meetings since its completion in 1913.

More than 700 spaces, or niches, for the ashes of the deceased are also housed here.

“The large combination chapel, crematorium and columbarium houses an astonishing collection of folk-like niches in the two side rooms. Each is decorated according to the distinct taste of the family.”","additional_properties":{"comments":1/83/8,"inline_comments":1/83/83/4,"_id":"46JJWQHMF5B67AT4QTGJWTLAUQ

— Helen Sclair, "A Self-Guided Tour of the Greater Chicagoland Area Cemeteries" (1994)

2. Beyond the vines and treestone marker

Location: Section V

Though burials aren’t allowed at the Cubs home ballpark just 5 miles southeast of Bohemian cemetery, a local man came up with this option instead. More than 200 niches for cremation urns are tucked in this 24-foot-long, ivy-covered red brick wall with a yellow “400” painted on it — mimicking the one in center field at Wrigley Field. Old box seats, home plate, original sod and pavers from the Cubs ballpark and a stained-glass window featuring the iconic center-field scoreboard permanently set at 1:20 p.m. are also included.

Nearby, one couple has created their own design to show their never-ending support for the Cubs in a style found throughout the Bohemian grounds. The tree-stump gravestone, or treestone, is made of limestone, which is easy to carve and can feature a variety of symbols. In this example, the first tree monument installed at Bohemian in more than 70 years, there are branches from two trees barely touching, forming the shape of a heart. According to its sculptor, Walter S. Arnold, the treestone features a transistor radio — which is tuned to WGN 720-AM — because the husband, who was blind, loved to listen to the play-by-play while attending Cubs games. There’s a crack through the name of his wife, who survives him, symbolizing her broken heart. At the bottom are symbols of the thing they enjoyed together.

“'Tree-stumps' describe the monuments with an obvious broken limb. At least two Bohemian stone carvers were proficient in producing these to order. Laden with symbols each tree has a unique story to tell: ivy — immortality; oak — strength; a broken wheel — a life ended; an anchor — hope; a sheaf of wheat — a life harvested; etc.”","additional_properties":{"comments":1/83/8,"inline_comments":1/83/83/4,"_id":"BS3HI5KEYBEP3H2BH62RVYZLDI

— Helen Sclair

3. Marker memorializing first burial

Location: The park just north of Section V

Dates differ as to when the infant known as N. Brada was buried here. The marker says the interment occurred July 1, 1877, but the cemetery’s official listings recorded it as Aug. 6, 1877. One possible reason for this, a Friends of the Bohemian National Cemetery newsletter points out, is it wasn’t until after the baby girl was buried that the cemetery applied for its permit. Technically, Bohemian National Cemetery didn’t exist on July 1, 1877.

Originally near the entrance gates, the child’s resting place was moved to another, more private location within the cemetery. This marker is only a cenotaph, or commemorative plaque.

“The first burial here, the Brada baby, July 1, 1877, began the full time tending to 125 acres by the fraternal orders associated with Bohemian National Cemetery.”","additional_properties":{"comments":1/83/8,"inline_comments":1/83/83/4,"_id":"G3KHSNBM55EITH4MNMJ6EBTWV4

— Helen Sclair

4. Civil War veterans monument

Location: The roundabout where Sections T, U and V meet the park

The bronze statue of a private soldier in fatigues holding a color staff in one hand and a bayoneted musket in the other represents the Czech immigrants who fought for their adopted country during the Civil War. The inscription underfoot reads, “Pro nouvou vlast,” or “For our new country.” A plaque at ground level includes the names of 18 Bohemian veterans of the Civil War buried in the cemetery.

An estimated 5,000 people turned out for the commemoration of this monument — said to be the first Bohemian soldiers' monument in America — on May 29, 1892, which was the first Memorial Day observed at Bohemian cemetery.

“Patriotic fervor is evident in the great sculptures. The Civil War monument is among the best in America.”","additional_properties":{"comments":1/83/8,"inline_comments":1/83/83/4,"_id":"HWGA4VVNWZEFFA32NJJWJWN734

— Helen Sclair

5. Spanish-American War veterans memorial

Location: The island among Sections 10, 11 and 12

If this statue looks familiar, then you’ve probably seen it in another cemetery or outside a government building in another state. The 8 1/4 u00bd-foot-tall figure atop a granite boulder “represents the veteran as he appeared in the ranks” during the 1898 war, according to the Chicago Tribune’s story on its unveiling in September 1926.

A cross-shaped plaque listing the names of 147 Spanish-American War veterans was added in 1964.

“The Spanish-American ‘Hiker’ is designed by a woman, Theodora Alice Ruggles Kitson. When it was cast in bronze, Gorham (Manufacturing Company) liked it so much that they produced 50 which are placed in various locations across America and they have been used in a study of the effects of acid rain.”","additional_properties":{"comments":1/83/8,"inline_comments":1/83/83/4,"_id":"UBNRDA7IIJHBXD7NACMMTVPRBU

— Helen Sclair

6. Wanda Stopa burial site

Location: Section 17 (about five rows north of road separating Blocks 15 and 17)

Chicago’s youngest and first female assistant U.S. district attorney was a brilliant Polish immigrant named Wanda Stopa. She had been one of only two women to graduate from John Marshall Law School in 1921. But just three years after graduation, Stopa left her career, married a Russian count then fell in love with a rich, married advertising executive, Y. Kenley Smith, who paid for her to live in New York.

When Smith refused to leave his wife Genevieve, nicknamed Doodles, Stopa showed up at their Palos Park home on April 24, 1924, intending to kill Smith’s wife. She took a shot, but it hit the couple’s elderly caretaker, Henry Manning, killing him. Stopa went on the run, killing herself by swallowing poison in a Detroit hotel room.

Approximately 10,000 Chicagoans turned out for her wake and funeral.

7. Cermak family mausoleum

Location: Southwest corner of Section 21

Tens of thousands of people waited in line for hours — in the bitter cold — to pay their respects to Chicago’s 36th mayor, Anton Cermak, and an estimated 50,000 assembled in Bohemian cemetery for the conclusion of his funeral procession in March 1933. The Czech immigrant, who once sold firewood from a wagon, worked his way up to become chief of Chicago’s Democratic machine and was considered a unifier of the city’s working ethnic groups. He was hit by bullets intended for President-elect Franklin Roosevelt during a ride with him in a convertible car in Miami, on Feb. 15, 1933, and died 19 days later. Roosevelt and wife, Eleanor, visited the site on Oct. 2, 1933.

The inscription upon his final resting place says, “I’m glad it was me instead of you,” which Cermak allegedly told FDR after being shot. The Tribune reported the quote without attribution. Scholars doubt Cermak ever said these words.

Also housed in the Cermak mausoleum is one of the former mayor’s daughters, Helena, who had been married to former Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner Jr.

8. SS Eastland disaster memorial

Location: Northeast corner of Section 16

On July 24, 1915, the SS Eastland — loaded with Western Electric employees and their families — prepared to depart its dock on the Chicago River and head across Lake Michigan for a company picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. The boat, however, listed to its side and capsized, trapping hundreds inside the vessel as water poured in. Out of the 844 people drowned, Bohemian cemetery has 143 Eastland victims buried in its plots, the most of any cemetery in the Chicago area. Of the 22 families wiped out by the disaster, four are buried in the cemetery. Some, including those of Czech ancestry, include a short line — “obet Eastlandu,” or “victim of the Eastland.”

Almost 100 years later, a memorial was dedicated to the victims at Bohemian cemetery. A black plaque described the disaster on one side and details of the Eastland gravesites on the other. A granite slab with a steamship’s steering wheel juts out of a granite slab with carved ripples that represent the sinking of the ship and its raising following the incident.

“Many of the dead of the Eastland disaster are in Section 16.”","additional_properties":{"comments":1/83/8,"inline_comments":1/83/83/4,"_id":"ME5H7MIAVNBFTBP3V3FHNPBXPA

— Helen Sclair, "A Self-Guided Tour of the Greater Chicagoland Area Cemeteries" (1994)

9. The Pilgrim statue — and a surprise

Location: Northeast corner of Section 18

The statue, depicting an older woman shrouded in long robes, was designed by Czech-born sculptor Albin Polasek. It’s one of his two works displayed at Bohemian cemetery — the other, Mother, is located just outside the crematorium. Polasek moved to Chicago from New York in 1916 to become the head of the department of modeling and sculpture at the Art Institute. The life-size sculpture was commissioned as a memorial to Frantiska Stejskal, the mother of the Stejskal-Buchel families, and shows a woman walking toward the families' mausoleum. Other examples of his work in the Chicago area include 7-foot-tall The Sower at the Chicago Botanic Garden (sporting a face mask these days but otherwise in the buff) and Spirit of Music in Grant Park.

“If you watch her feet they seem to move ever, ever onward.”","additional_properties":{"comments":1/83/8,"inline_comments":1/83/83/4,"_id":"TDVT5KKUUJFHPFYOME237UK654

— Helen Sclair

Friends, we’ve now arrived at the last stop of our tour — and the final resting place for our tour guide, Helen Sclair. That’s right — she’s dead. Sclair, known affectionately as the “Cemetery Lady” for her many years of research about local cemeteries and for providing tours and lectures on the topic, died in 2009.

Her last address is the same as it was while she was still alive — she lived on the grounds of Bohemian cemetery for the eight years prior to her death.

Sclair is credited with uncovering a treasure trove of historic documents in a state archive at Northeastern Illinois University about Chicago’s first cemetery, which was on the site of what now is Lincoln Park. “Indeed, Sclair thinks that all of the bodies may not yet be out of Lincoln Park,” Chicago Tribune reporter Ron Grossman wrote about Sclair’s significant find in 1991.

Sclair’s gravestone is a little difficult to find since its inscription does not face the road, but it is a few steps south of The Pilgrim statue. Make sure to pay your respects and whisper “Thank you” while you visit Sclair. Then, make sure to return to visit her another time.

“A varied landscape, worthy of the dead as well as the living visitor. Come back again and again to enjoy.”","additional_properties":{"comments":1/83/8,"inline_comments":1/83/83/4,"_id":"P6CM7HICFFDHHNU63JUOL7ECEQ

— Helen Sclair

Sources: Chicago Tribune reporting and archives; Helen A. Sclair Papers at the Newberry Library; Friends of Bohemian National Cemetery; “A Dear and Precious Heritage: Bohemian National Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois,” edited by Carol Jean Smetana; Czech & Slovak American Genealogy Society of Illinois; Eastland Disaster Historical Society; Encyclopedia of Chicago


Have an idea for the Flashback team? Share your suggestions with Editor Colleen Kujawa at ckujawa@chicagotribune.com.


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