But here’s the thing – I love cemeteries. I always have. When we were in 4th grade our class was supposed to take a field trip to the local cemetery to learn about our town ancestors. It got rained out and I was upset for weeks. A few years ago, I went on a “cemetery walk” in Crystal Lake, IL. Costumed interpreters stood by select graves and told the stories of the lives of the deceased in the first person. It was fascinating to hear the “living” histories, and to have an AMA with someone who had been dead for over 100 years. I would recommend the experience to everyone.
I went to Graceland with Lynnette. Lynnette lives in Denver, but should really live in Chicago. Every time she comes to visit, magical Chicago things happen. I get free tickets to a skybox at Wrigley next to John Cusak and Eddie Vedder. We get gifted tulip bulbs from the Millennium Park gardeners. We line hop a popular club in the “Viagra Triangle” by hanging out with an Italian “silver fox” and his “associate” (aka body guard) who get full table service. Seriously…magical.
Lynnette is also an architecture buff. Weather-permitting, she’ll have us take a Wendella boat or kayak tour up and down the Chicago river just to hear more about the construction of the Marina Towers and other iconic structures. Five years ago she insisted I read Devil in the White City before her semi-annual visit. I’m glad I did, because afterwards her myriad references to Daniel Burnham actually made sense.
It was Burnham and his contemporaries that brought us to Graceland. The cemetery grounds are peopled with famous Chicagoans, many of who are considered the City’s post-Great Chicago Fire founders. Preeminent among them is Daniel Burnham, the architect behind the 1893 World’s Fair and its “White City.” He also wrote the 1909 Plan for Chicago, which included the philosophy that every citizen should be within walking distance to a park.
I like the way the man thought.
Following Lynnette’s lead, we wandered from grave to grave, reading the biographies of each of the inhabitants. Lynnette was the closest to “fan-girl” gushing I had ever seen her, especially at the tombs of dead architects such as Louis Sullivan. But when we got to “Burnham’s Island,” it was my turn to wax poetic. Nestled back from the main road, down a dirt path and across a wooden footbridge, was a forested plot of land surrounded by Lake Willowmere. Natural glacial granite boulders mark the remains of Daniel Burnham and his family, a stark contrast to the Italian marble columns and vaults preferred by others in the cemetery.
I learned Burnham had died while travelling in Germany. He was cremated abroad, and his cremains brought back to be interred on his island near the water. Reflecting in the stillness, sunlight speckled by the trees, my admiration of this great man grew exponentially. His relatively humble gravesite, on its wooded plot, embodied – to me – the open land conservation principles Burnham espoused, even as he designed and built some of the tallest skyscrapers the world had known at the time.
At one point during our stroll that day Lynnette remarked, “Can you imagine if just a handful of the people who are buried here had never lived? How different would our city – our world – be today? To think that when you look at the Chicago skyline, most of what is there were just ideas – back of the napkin ideas – for these men.” It is a humbling, and again, inspiring thought. The most famous quote attributed to Burnham is “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir man’s blood.” Wanting to provide green burial options for my fellow Midwesterners is no little plan, but I hope that the idea to create natural cemeteries is a magical one.
By Juliann Wilson Salinas