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Bohemian National Cemetery

Noise rock pioneer Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth will perform Saturday at Bohemian National Cemetery on the North Side. Cemeteries as venues isn’t exactly a new idea, but it’s still a bit unexpected.

Taylor Glascock for WBEZ

The transfixing, cathartic experience of rocking out in a Chicago cemetery

Noise rock pioneer Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth will play a show this weekend at Bohemian National Cemetery. It’s not as unusual as you might think.

When Kim Gordon comes to Chicago on Saturday to perform songs off her new record The Collective, she won’t be appearing at Metro or the Riviera or even a summer music festival. Instead the iconic former leader of Sonic Youth, now two albums into an acclaimed solo career, is performing in a cemetery. In front of a mausoleum. Surrounded by 1,500 adoring and utterly alive fans.

It turns out cemetery stops are not all that unusual for Gordon, at least in these parts: This is her second time playing Chicago’s Bohemian National Cemetery, where she first appeared back in 2017 in Body/Head, her electric guitar duo with Vampire Belt’s Bill Nace. Both shows are part of a series called Beyond the Gate, run by Empty Bottle Presents, which has been bringing musicians to the North Side cemetery for more than 10 years.

Cemeteries as cultural gathering spots isn’t exactly a new idea. Still, in a summer crowded with megatours and sprawling rock festivals, they do offer a distinctly offbeat, somewhat haunting and decidedly neighborhood-centric departure.

I was at the very first rock show held at Bohemian on a summer night in June 2013, which featured an expanded incarnation of sound artist J. R. Robinson’s Wrekmeister Harmonies, performing his then new album, You’ve Always Meant so Much to Me, in its entirety. After a long trudge along Pulaski Road, the audience arrived at the concert site, near the northwest corner of the cemetery. The ensemble of black metal and experimental musicians gathered between the wings of a low-slung, modernist era mausoleum.

As the full moon rose the building’s white marble façade started to glow. It felt like we’d left Chicago far behind and entered a scene from a 1970s art house Italian horror film. Slowly, the music built from a quiet, introspective drone into a frenzy of distortion, electric guitars and string instruments, vocals both ethereal and yowling, soaring into the night air. It was a transfixing, cathartic experience.

Bohemian National Cemetery

Bohemian National Cemetery

Cemeteries are known to be quiet spaces. Concerts and other cultural events may help enliven them.

Taylor Glascock for WBEZ

Gordon’s performance at Bohemian National will likely be similarly transporting. Known for wild experiments in noise, her new album The Collective conjures the disorienting onslaught of digital technology on human existence. Brent Heyl of the Empty Bottle and 16 on Center, who programs Beyond the Gate, says he’s inspired that Gordon continues to make this kind of music in her 70s, adding that it takes a particular level of artist to command the cemetery as stage.

“You’re confronted with the circle of life, with the finality of life, and it really is a unique tone for a concert,” Heyl said. “There are artists out there where it makes absolute sense to appreciate their music within that setting and really reflect on, you know, perhaps it’s corny, but just to reflect on life in general. It’s a very deep experience.”

Cemeteries across the United States are offering such experiences, so much so it’s become part of the zeitgeist. In Issa Rae’s series Insecure, the main character attends an outdoor movie screening in L.A.’s Hollywood Forever Cemetery, something that cemetery has been doing in the real world since 2002. Across the United States, cemeteries host mindfulness walks, forest bathing sessions and early morning writing groups. You can volunteer as a “grave gardener” at Woodlands Cemetery in Philadelphia or pay a fee to secure “off leash” privileges at Congressional Cemetery in Washington D.C. for your dog.

When I mention these ideas to Michael Weidman, who is the Director of Family Services at Chicago’s Rosehill Cemetery, he winches at the thought of dogs running among the graves. “The way I see it, every inch of my cemetery is owned by a family and has been surveyed and belongs to somebody. So to have an animal doing that, if it’s relieving itself, it’s on someone’s mother’s grave or someone’s sister or someone’s brother, if I was that family owner of that lot and I saw that happening to my loved one, I’d be a little taken aback.”

The Mausoleum at Bohemian National Cemetery

Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth will perform in front of the mausoleum at Bohemian National Cemetery.

Taylor Glascock for WBEZ

Rosehill is one of Chicago’s oldest and largest nonsectarian cemeteries, built in 1859. Its 350 acres run from North Ravenswood Avenue on the east all the way to Western Avenue. Many of Chicago’s most well-known civic and business leaders — Julius Rosenwald, Oscar Meyer, Montgomery Ward, Milton Florsheim — are interred here. You can’t miss the cemetery’s imposing gothic gate, the work of William Boyington, who also designed Chicago’s iconic Water Tower on Michigan Avenue. Almost as prominent is a sign prohibiting skateboarding, cycling and running within its perimeter.

The sign doesn’t always stop those activities — an ongoing tension with the cemetery’s traditional business, Weidman says. “Anything that infringes upon that, we ask people not to do.” Still, Rosehill has long sponsored a 5K “Crypt Run” around Halloween, donating the money to charitable organizations. Since 2017, the cemetery has also regularly hosted concerts in May Chapel, an intimate space with a richly detailed interior of terracotta walls, mosaic floors and intricately carved wooden ceiling. Weidman shies away from rock, preferring to program folk, classical or jazz music. “Whatever I do, I like to comfort the living and not wake the dead.”

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Bohemian National Cemetery, a landmark listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, is now a regular stop for artists making some of the most challenging and complex music of our moment.

Taylor Glascock for WBEZ

Weidman partners with Experimental Sound Studio and Elastic Arts, both pillars of Chicago’s creative music scene, and sees the concerts as community engagement and good business. He doesn’t charge for the space but at every concert he makes a plug for Rosehill. “I have a little fun with the crowds,” he admits, by encouraging those in attendance to “think about your own mortality, and what you want to do about it.”

These new activities are part of a much longer tradition of community gatherings at cemeteries. Weidman tells me that even into the early 20th Century, Rosehill would host up to 10,000 visitors every weekend. People would visit their loved ones and bring along a picnic, so they could socialize with friends and families. A train brought them right to the cemetery gate, along what is now a Metra track.

Then as now, things sometimes got out of hand and such gatherings were discouraged. But Weidman thinks larger life-altering events changed our relationship to cemeteries, events like the American Civil War or World Wars. “We had 600,000 people killed in the Civil War. So when you lose all these people who are buried in the same cemetery, it’s no longer the natural cycle of life,” he said. “It’s a very sad place where there may be thousands and thousands of young people killed in the prime of life. And I think that shifted the way people saw cemeteries, that it became a very mournful place for a long time.”

Cemeteries are quieter spaces now. Are concerts and cultural events helping to enliven them?

Bohemian National Cemetery

Bohemian’s general manager Elizabeth Raleigh and crematory operator Steve Ziolkowski are helping to change the profile of the North Side cemetery.

Taylor Glascock for WBEZ

Earlier this spring I joined a group of about 30 cemetery-curious at Bohemian National, to view the historic grave of former Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak and more recent sites, like an eclectic shrine to Cubs Fans with an ivy covered wall and original home plate. Further along there’s a memorial for victims of the tragic Eastland shipwreck on the Chicago River. Many of the more than 800 drowning victims were Czech.

Everyone I spoke with on the tour, whether they were there for the architecture, the history or to visit a family plot, welcomed the idea of rock concerts in the cemetery. That general enthusiasm may explain how Bohemian National, a landmark listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, is now also a regular stop for artists making some of the most challenging and complex music of our moment.

Elizabeth Raleigh has been the general manager of Bohemian National for 36 years. Her nephew Steve Ziolkowski is the crematory operator and the keeper of the chapel. Both believe the concerts are helping to change the profile of the cemetery. Raleigh says, “It shows we appeal to different cultures. It shows we’re open to everything, I mean, every culture, every nationality. So we have a lot of different people coming, you know, people that like string quartets, people who like rock and roll. So it’s really a diverse thing.”

That spirit of openness is part of the history of Bohemian National Cemetery, which in 1877 was founded by freethinkers wanting a place where people could be buried regardless of their religious beliefs. The concerts also support present realities, helping to offset the cost of maintenance and aligning with the cemetery’s recruitment efforts. As Chicago’s Czech population has moved away, there are new sections for the cemetery’s Bosnian and Latino neighbors. Ziolkowski says most chapel services are for local Hindus. Such changes are part of the life cycle of any cemetery, driven by their mission to both tend their dead and remain relevant to the changing world around them.

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Bohemian National Cemetery Diptych 1

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Bohemian National Cemetery Diptych 2

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Taylor Glascock for WBEZ


Alison Cuddy is a Chicago-based writer.

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