As a frosty wind raked the fallen leaves, two visitors to the cemetery nestled down in the grass.
They did not appear to be there to visit Leonard Peil, Florence A. McClenthen, Herman A. Poppenhusen — or even those who lie beneath headstones so old their names have been wiped clean away.
Perhaps they were lonely. Or maybe hungry. When a man with a bag of baby carrots approached, the buck of the pair got to its feet and sauntered over.
“I’m out of apples — they really like apples,” said Brian Keleher, 72, who regularly visits Rosehill Cemetery to see the wildlife.
He’s rarely disappointed. The cemetery staff members say there may be as many as 16 deer roaming the 335 acres of Rosehill, the city’s largest cemetery at 5800 N. Ravenswood Ave. There are even mature bucks with antlers with multiple points that would be an impressive catch for a hunter outside the city.
“The old-timers said that there have always been one or two. I don’t remember seeing that many until about the last five or six years,” said Michael Weidman, Rosehill’s director of family services.
In some places, deer are considered a pest — particularly when they munch prized flowers. But Weidman doesn’t see it that way.
“The deer are beautiful. They are very docile. They love to eat all of the flowers. So any flowers that people bring to their services and they lay on top of a fresh grave, usually by the next morning — with razor-like precision — all of the flowers have been eaten overnight,” he said. “When things get lean over the winter, they start eating a lot of the evergreens and yews and the arborvitae.”
The cemetery urges visitors not to feed the deer.
“We just don’t want them to be eating people food. We don’t want them to get used to that. They are wild animals,” Weidman said.
The cemetery is home to other creatures, too, of course: “We have six or seven coyotes I’ve seen. … Geese, ducks, rats, mice, squirrels, raccoons, opossums and a staff of 13,” Weidman said.
Keleher, a retired nurse who lives in Rogers Park, said he comes to the cemetery a couple of times a week. In the summer, he sees giant snapping turtles in the cemetery’s ponds.
“I could go on and on about turtles. I’m a turtle fanatic,” he said.
On one occasion, a Sunday evening, he accidentally got stuck in the graveyard overnight when security locked the gates earlier than he was expecting.
“I just hung out in my car, made a few phone calls. I drove around, looking for a way to escape, but I couldn’t find a way out,” he said.
Had he found a way, he probably wouldn’t have been treated to the sight of a herd of 11 does all grazing together shortly after the gates were locked.