by Karen Kruse
It was a gloomy afternoon with a gentle summer rain coming down. I had been doing research at a local library and stopped on the way home to pick up information regarding the history of Rosehill Cemetery for a future project. Once I received the map of grave locations, my head started spinning. Famous Chicagoans were buried all through the place. The draw was irresistible.
Despite the drizzle, I had a glorious time snapping photos. I was about ready to leave when I decided to see if I could get into the public mausoleum. Everything else had gone right, so I figured luck was with me.
The massive door at the main entrance was locked. Undeterred, I drove around the perimeter of the mausoleum, getting out of the car at each door to check, but they were all deadbolted. To my delight, I finally found an entrance at the rear of the structure, complete with red carpet and a door standing open. I locked my purse in the car, slung my camera over my shoulder, and stuck my keys in my pocket. I would only be inside a moment.
As I walked into the mausoleum, eerie organ music greeted me. I decided that I’d rather be thrown out of a mausoleum than locked in one. Going in search of whoever was there to let them know I was inside would be the smart thing to do.
I found Jim, in typical ground’s crew garb, bent over a bench in the office, scribbling something. I made sure to make lots of noise so not to scare him half to death. He was glad I stopped to let him know I was there. He asked if I had seen the Shedd Chapel. When Jim found out that’s exactly what I was hoping to see, he offered to take me on an impromptu tour.
We traipsed down hallway after hallway, admiring beautiful stained glass windows in each crypt. In Rosehill’s mausoleum, a black marble diamond inlaid in the white marble doorframe of the individual burial rooms indicated genuine Tiffany windows. They were breathtaking.
I don’t know if I’ve seen too many horror movies or what, but suddenly I realized I was alone in a mausoleum with somebody I didn’t know. We had turned so many times, I had no idea how to get out. To make matters worse, I caught Jim checking me up and down. The dialogue in my head rambled between, “Are you nuts?” and “This is so cool!” I tried to enjoy the tour and be social.
It wasn’t long before we walked into the magnificent John G. Shedd Memorial Chapel. The room was decorated exclusively in white marble: walls, benches, even a permanent lectern. A few feet behind the lectern were marble steps flanked by two marble columns topped by urns. A heavy brass gate marked the entrance to the burial room. Peeking through the ornate metalwork, I saw a three-sectioned Tiffany window in breathtaking shades of blue.
After my initial awe, I snapped back to reality as Jim told me photographs were not allowed. Hm, I thought, perhaps I could use my camera to smack him over the head.
Jim suggested how the room must have looked in the past, with mourners dressed in top hats and tails and the women in elegant gowns. This “lowly” gravedigger had the ability to paint a vivid picture and we were swept back to another time. The room seemed filled with a benevolent spirit, but I was nervous. When the moment passed, Jim asked if I wanted to see the burial vault of Richard Warren Sears, the merchandising giant who founded Sears & Roebuck.
Through a dimly lit archway, we walked into a smallish hallway like something out of Dark Shadows. My mind started to get the best of me, alone with this stranger, surrounded by dead people. Dread enveloped me. I was very aware of Jim’s presence and was ready (as I could be) to defend myself if I had to. I figured nobody would ever find my body. Nobody even knew I was at the cemetery, let alone in the mausoleum. I was still wondering how I was brave enough to walk into the mausoleum in the first place. My skin crawled, but I marched on.
We walked to the end of the hall to view the Sears family vault. Sears’ crypt was beautiful, made entirely of white marble with elegant gold writing. It was a fitting resting place for a man of such merchandising vision.
Steps from Sears’ resting place was his own entrance. The door had been designed into the building, so his crypt just happened to be next to it. I could see the road outside through the dead-bolted glass door. I felt trapped.
Sears’ ghost has allegedly been seen in top hat and tails leaving his crypt, heading toward that of his rival in life, Aaron Montgomery Ward. After admiring Mr. Sears’ burial chamber, it was only fitting we see Mr. Ward’s as well. Mr. Ward and his family rested behind an ornate brass gate, which Jim joked needed dusting. Beyond the gate, all you could see was a wall, behind which the residents presumably rested.
By now, many of the crypts looked the same, but Jim insisted I follow him. He wanted to “show me something.” I was terrified as we walked down a dead-end hall. Was this where he put me on the meat hook? Nope, he wanted to show me a delicate pink-flowered Tiffany window. He said he didn’t get down that way to see it often and wanted to share his favorite with me. My heart pounded.
As long as I was around, Jim was determined to show me everything. We glided up an elegant white marble staircase to the second floor. Here, the crypts were oppressive. Behind the iron gates, they looked like jail cells. I kept thinking that any time now, Jim would push me into one of them. He beckoned me to look inside, but I kept my distance. Still, they had character and I was glad to visit them.
I figured the tour should be about over and Jim would return me to the entrance with the organ music. Instead, he had one more stop planned: he wanted to show me the basement. All the horror movies I’d ever seen played through my mind. While my head said, “Don’t do it! Don’t go in there!” my mouth said, “Sure.” Jim happily led the way, while I wondered how long it would be before anybody figured out I was missing. The basement lights were off, but Jim offered to run ahead to snap them on. I was convinced he was going to get a chainsaw. My body could be hidden quite well in the uninhabited vaults here.
Now I know why the blonde in all those B-movies lets the stranger in the house and does all the stupid stuff we, the audience, tell her not to do. I did it, too. After a brief glimpse of the basement, I decided I preferred the first floor and headed back the way we had come. No, Jim had another stairway he wanted me to try. Was this the one where I ended up in the torture chamber? The circular stairway wound through rough-cut rock. I was relieved when we made it back to the first floor.
My tour over, Jim led the way to the entrance with that beautiful organ music. It never sounded so good. Later I realized it was taped, sort of Muzak for the dead.
Back to reality, I was sad to leave my wonderful adventure behind, but couldn’t wait to tell everybody my great story. I thanked my guide for a nice time, but never shook his hand. Only later did I wonder if he was of this world or the next.
This was originally published in Morbid Curiosity #8. It’s reprinted here with Karen’s kind permission.
Karen Kruse is the author of A Chicago Firehouse: Stories of Wrigleyville’s Engine 78. You can order a personalized, autographed copy of the book through her website: www.achicagofirehouse.com.
Her work has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in History.
About the Death’s Garden project:
I am getting ready to finish the Death’s Garden project. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, please get in touch SOON. I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.