Chicago’s Historic Cemeteries - Online December Lecture
~ report by Anne Wilson-Dooley ~
Our December speaker was Dr. Jane Eva Baxter, an associate professor and Chair of Anthropology at DePaul University of Chicago. Her talk combined her archaeological interests in burials and childhood.
The beliefs, practices, and material culture of caring for the deceased are cultural constructs and have varied significantly through time within and between communities/cultures. Population growth, population movement, and social history changes have had the major effects on what we can see today, know from historical study, and learn from archaeology excavations.
Dr. Baxter led us through time in Europe and the United States of caring for our deceased and keeping them in our communities as our settlements grew in populations from a few hundred residents to cities of thousands to millions. Burial locations changed from under household floors to church graveyards, to park-like cemeteries of a few hundred acres. These large burial areas were several miles removed from a city for space and sanitary reasons.
The term ‘cemeteries’ from a Greek word for essentially ‘sleeping place,’ came into use. These were frequently secular and generally capitalist ventures. They were and are spaces for the dead and to be visited by the living. We see and visit them today often with their elaborate entrances, roadways, walking paths, landscaping, gardens, and frequently lake or water features. Locations were chosen where rail lines made sites accessible for moving caskets and family excursions.
Moving to her interests in childhood and what we could learn from local cemeteries, Dr. Baxter led us through her study of a selected sample of infant/child tombstones in two Chicago cemeteries. For background she reviewed 1800’s population growth, social history, the history of Chicago cemeteries, and mortality records.
In mortality records for the years 1867-1876, 57% of some 7700 deaths were of infants and children; 2800 were infants 0 to 12 months and 1600 were children of 1-5 years. Counting and taking notes on the tombstones for the age ranges in two Chicago cemeteries, she located only 500 infant/child stones. The rural cemeteries were Rosehill that was established in 1859 on 500 acres located 6.5 miles north of the city and Oak Woods that was laid out in 1864 on 200 acres 3.5 miles south of the city limits. Today both are still in use and completely surrounded by city.
The history of Chicago area development included two periods of mass moving of burials, first in 1835, when the city mandated the moving of neighborhood burials to a location along the lake in the now Lincoln Park area, and then the closing and removal of all of those burials by 1867. Her period of 1867-1876 was just after the burial movement.
Did the stones located indicate any demographic or social difference between the two cemetery locations? The ones at Oak Woods are more informative in both appearance and inscriptions. They contain more laments about the loss of the future the child represented and are more elaborate. Rosehill, probably used by more of the immigrant families, has fewer such markers. It was a time period with a great range in the city population from established families and great wealth to immigration and poverty. There are expenses to burial and tombstones. Many families may have made less of an investment in infants at a time when mortality rates were high.
All of us have many experiences with death and burial. All of us have archaeological interests in other times and cultures and all of these have their beliefs and practices associated with death and burial. Many of us work on the history of our own families and have visited, perhaps centuries, of family burials. Dr. Baxter’s talk has added depth to my understanding of burials in general and my family burials in particular. We hope it is good for your understanding also.