Oak Woods Cemetery: Where design and planning are eternal affairs

November 12, 2012

For decades, a concrete wall topped by barbed wire has surrounded Oak Woods Cemetery.
 
But behind the heavy, gray barrier is one of the most striking urban spaces in Chicago: 183 acres of gentle lawns, winding lanes and a quartet of lakes, all planned with order and beauty--not to mention fancy mausoleums and monuments ranging from Greek Revival to Art Nouveau and beyond. The North Side's historic Graceland and Rosehill cemeteries get all the attention, but Oak Woods, located on the South Side at 67th and Greenwood, is right there with them.
 
Created in 1853, Oak Woods belongs to a first generation of high-quality cemeteries that sought to take the burial experience beyond cramped graveyards and creepy boneyards, instead allowing loved ones to be laid to rest in well-designed, park-like spaces with trees, museum-quality statuary, rolling lawns and landscaping. Oak Woods was designed by landscape architect Adolph Strauch whose Spring Grove Cemetery, designed in 1844, gave birth to this movement.
 
And now a look around Oak Woods, beginning at the shore of Symphony Lake, looking north:
Daniel Van DeGrift rests in a sarcophagus inside of a replica Greek Temple not unlike the one Palmer and Bertha Honore Palmer were placed in at Graceland Cemetery:
The small Jewish cemetery within Oak Woods needs a little more care, though. Located on the south edge of Oak Woods near 71st Street, there are a few leaning monuments and some overgrown grass.The old cemetery-within-a-cemetery looks forgotten. But judging by the dried flower taped to the face of the marker in the photo below, someone remembers:
Here's another marker from Jewish Oak Woods:
Outside of the Jewish section, I spotted what looks to be headstone that doubles as a bench. The stone is carved to resemble the texture of a tree. I like this:
I bet there is a pretty good story here:
The Woodward family monument from the late 1800s is a powerful expression in Art Nouveau:
But no expression is more powerful than the sentiments expressed here:
There are more than 200,000 people buried in Oak Woods. The list of luminaries seems endless: Jesse Owens; Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first commissioner of baseball; Chicago gangster Big Jim Colisimo; mobster Jake "Greasy Thumb" Guzik; journalist and activist Ida B. Wells; and a set of Chicago mayors including Harold Washington and his successor, Eugene Sawyer. Not to mention the largest Confederate burial ground in the north, where a reported 6000 sons of the South rest.
 
The cemetery marks the 160th year of its founding in 2013.