Every so often, Todd Keller likes to hop on his bicycle and scour Chicago to find inspiration for his photography. One of his favorite spots is Rosehill Cemetery, located on Chicago’s Far North Side.
The nearly 160-year-old cemetery is the city’s largest, with paths that weave and loop through 350 acres of manicured lawns and elaborate Victorian monuments. Former U.S. Vice President Charles Dawes rests at Rosehill, as does Shedd Aquarium founder John G. Shedd, Schwinn Bicycle Company founder Ignaz Schwinn, and several Chicago mayors.
“It’s just a historically important, beautiful, well-kept, and peaceful cemetery,” Todd says. “I also love the erosion of the old statuary. There’s a kind of beauty in it, because it’s something only time can do.”
Todd doesn’t, however, love what he calls the cemetery’s bike “embargo.” It severely limits the amount of ground he can cover, and it’s somewhat hypocritical, he says; he’s seen plenty of cars dart through. So he wonders, what’s so bad about bikes?
Todd says he’s noticed other cemeteries with similar rules. So he asked Curious City:
Why are bicycles usually not allowed in Chicago-area cemeteries? They are peaceful, beautiful, safe places to ride.
Here’s the thing, though: Many cemeteries in the area do allow bicycles. Out of the 12 cemeteries that returned our calls, only a few said they don’t allow people to ride through their grounds: Rosehill Cemetery, St. Luke Cemetery on Chicago’s Far North Side, and Oak Woods on the South Side.
But plenty of other cemeteries around the country prohibit bicycles, including all 135 of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ national cemeteries. So, what’s the deal?
As we peddled forward with our investigation, we learned that these bike-prohibitive cemeteries may be holding onto a sentiment that took root in America around the turn of the 20th century. Before the late 1800s, cemeteries were destinations for leisure activities. But as medical care improved and people began to live longer, Americans’ experience with death became less frequent and more removed. As a result, our ideas about the proper way to mourn the dead slowly began to change, and cemetery rules reflected these shifting norms. But a Chicago cemetery’s recent decision to allow bicycles could herald another shift ahead.
Why aren’t bikes allowed in some cemeteries?
For the cemeteries that do prohibit bicycles, the rule comes down to this: Biking is recreation and that could be considered disrespectful to grieving families.
Dignity Memorial, the company that owns Rosehill and several other Chicago-area cemeteries, sent Curious City a statement explaining that cyclists disturbed “the experience that families expect and deserve” at the cemetery.
St. Luke Cemetery, located near Pulaski Road and Foster Avenue, says bicycles are disrespectful to the dead and to the mourners who come to visit their loved ones.
“We have a lot of senior citizens that come here, and we don’t want them walking in front of a biker that has headphones on and is screaming along to Pearl Jam,” says Manny Mendoza, who manages the cemetery. “It’s a liability and it interrupts bereavement.”
Screaming along to Pearl Jam’s “Alive” might be one way to disrespect the dead, but couldn’t you also do that in a car, which is allowed at St. Luke and Rosehill? How are cars that different from bicycles when it comes to visiting cemeteries? Aren’t they both modes of transportation?
Suspecting a deeper truth, Curious City went straight to the experts.
When death was more comfortable
Before 1900, the average American didn’t live past the age of 50, so death and mourning penetrated 19th-century culture, says Kate Sweeney, author of American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning,
“Mourning was a normal part of life that we were all quite familiar with,” Sweeney says. “There were agreed-upon ways of mourning, and even clothing and acceptable behaviors for each stage.”
Death also left its mark on places that hit close to home.
“A room that was once very common in the middle-class American home was the parlour, which was the front room of the house where you might court your sweetheart, get married, and have your funeral,” says Sweeney. “It was the centerpiece of a lot of American life.”
Nineteenth-century cemeteries, particularly those built after 1830 on the outskirts of cities, reflected this familiarity and closeness with death and mourning, Sweeney says.
Called “rural cemeteries,” they sprung from a need for more burial space, as the old churchyards and municipal burial grounds near city centers grew overcrowded and concerns about disease outbreaks swelled. At the same time, they were designed to offer idyllic respite from city life, a service that later inspired city parks.
So yes, that means these cemeteries were America’s first public parks.
In fact, rural cemeteries like Rosehill and Graceland Cemetery in Uptown were designed by some of the people who designed Lincoln Park’s grounds.
“These were the first cemeteries that were designed to be visited and for people to spend time in,” Sweeney says. “And they were really popular for that: People had picnics there, took walks with their sweethearts, wrote romantic poetry.”
Sounds a lot more lighthearted than the cemeteries we know today. And there’s a reason for that.
Around the turn of the 20th century, as medical science advanced and people began to live longer, our relationship with death started to change.
“Professionals took over the care of the sick and dying, and death moved away from people’s homes and into hospitals and funeral homes,” Sweeney says.
And those parlours that were so common in middle-class American homes? They disappeared in favor of a new, rebranded space called the living room.
As people grew less familiar with death, so did their cemeteries.
Keith Eggener, author of the book Cemeteries, says the cemeteries that began popping up in the early 1900s were a manifestation of this shift.
“There is a denial of death throughout much of the 20th century, and that’s reflected in these memorial parks [cemeteries], which are more about memory; there is almost no reference to death whatsoever,” Eggener says.
In these cemeteries, death seemed to be more removed and hidden from daily life, Eggener says. Much of the excessive and romantic decoration that characterized rural cemeteries was replaced in favor of this new cemetery’s simplicity and uniformity.
And people didn’t spend as much time in these cemeteries, compared to their 19th-century rural counterparts. When they did, they generally didn’t have a pleasant experience.
“Many cemeteries are treated in a way where everything except mourning is forbidden,” Eggener says.
Around that same time — the late 19th century and early 20th century — bicycles came into vogue for both transportation and recreation. But news accounts from the era suggested not everyone held bikers, also called “scorchers,” in the highest regard.
As such, Eggener says, “there were probably bans on bikes immediately after they were introduced.”
The times, they are a changin’
But as bicycles become more popular in Chicago and around the country, many historic urban cemeteries are rethinking their rules about bike riding, including the nearly 160-year-old Graceland Cemetery. The cemetery entombs such famed locals as master urban planner Daniel Burnham, department store magnate Marshall Field, and renowned architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
The pastoral, 119-acre cemetery — located in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood— rescinded its “no bikes” rule in June and will host its first bike tour on Oct. 29.
Jensen Allen, associate director at the cemetery, says Graceland is trying to shift with the culture, which is largely driven by the needs of grieving families.
“We decided there was a pretty big demand from bikers to visit family members or just come through. Some didn’t have a lot of time to walk through, and biking was their form of transportation,” Jensen says. “So we wanted to let those people enjoy Graceland, too.”
Graceland has also considered allowing nature groups inside, Jensen says.
Bohemian National Cemetery, located in Chicago’s North Park neighborhood, not only allows bicyclists, but it also allows picnicking, concerts, and movie nights on a portion of its grounds.
So, do these new rules mean that people are becoming more comfortable with death — so much so that they want to be in cemeteries?
It’s hard to say.
Sweeney, the author of American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning, doesn’t think we’re quite there yet. Sure, more people are talking about — and immersing themselves in — the idea of death, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s ready to confront their own mortality, let alone recreate in cemeteries.
“I think there’s mostly still avoidance and fear,” Sweeney says.
But Bohemian National Cemetery has noticed the public is open to attending activities inside the cemetery.
Board member Chuck Betzold says the cemetery once held a movie night, thinking around 300 people would show up. And boy, did they ever.
“We didn’t know how many people to anticipate, and the movie company just had 300 bracelets to let people in,” Betzold says. “There were 3,000 people that were lining up outside the cemetery for this free movie.”
More about our questioner
Todd Keller has in lived many places, but he ended up in Chicago 10 years ago. He moved here partly for work (he’s a tile installer) and partly to satisfy an itch he had to live in the windy city.
He currently calls Logan Square home, but he used to live in the Rogers Park neighborhood, which is closer to Rosehill Cemetery. He used to take photos and ride his bike through the cemetery until he was shooed out, he says.
Todd says he thought the rule was strange because the cemetery had no problem with cars. And he says he wonders why they wouldn’t prefer a “silent, non-polluting” mode of transportation over … the exact opposite kind.
He was surprised to learn that the rule ultimately came down to the supposed vulgarity of his chosen mode of transportation within the confines of the cemetery.
He says he is happy these feelings seem to be changing, and is especially happy about Graceland’s rule reversal. He’ll be there with bells on … and his bike.
If you'd like to cycle through a cemetery, Curious City is hosting a guided bike tour of Graceland Cemetery on Sunday, November 5th! Tickets available here.
Laura Pavin is the intern at Curious City, and a freelance journalist in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @laurapavinnews.