CHICAGO — Once out looking to impress a girl on a “cheap date,” a man exploring cemeteries after church on Sundays stumbled into his lifelong passion: graveyard research and stories of the dead.
Barry Fleig, born and raised in West Ridge, has created a blog with information and stories on Chicago’s various cemeteries and graveyards.
“Cemeteries tell us where we have been and who we have been,” Fleig said. “The history of Chicago is embedded in all these cemeteries.”
With a list of at least 273 cemeteries, Fleig, 73, is releasing his research dating back to the '80s, when he would explore cemeteries just for the fun of it as a young man in Chicago. After hearing the stories he learned, friends would ask Fleig to write down what he knew. This began a writing and research process that has lasted years.
Fleig, previously the cemetery chairman of the Chicago Genealogical Society, has also created a searchable Cook County Cemetery Database. His most recognized accomplishment was the rediscovery, identification and research of the forgotten Cook County Cemetery at Dunning, the burial site of more than 38,000 bodies on the 320-acre farm later known as the Chicago State hospital on Chicago's Northwest Side.
Fleig says he spent at least 5 years of his life compiling information on the Dunning cemetery, time that took away from his unfinished book. He would pour through filing cabinets in local libraries, go over newspaper clippings and spend time at the Chicago History Museum. Fleig eventually decided to put his research online, hoping it would be more accessible to the general public.
“The world has changed. Putting things on paper and ink aren’t quite as helpful,” Fleig said. “I decided on the website — it’s easier, it’s faster, it’s free. I wanna share what I know.”
One of Fleig’s personal favorite cemeteries is the Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, known for its burials of showmen and fringe entertainers after a circus train crashed with a passenger train around 4 a.m. on a June morning in 1918 as the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus was making its way to a performance in Hammond, Ind. The “Showmen’s Rest” plot of the cemetery, maintained by the Showmen’s League of America, has five granite elephants to keep watch over it.
“Many people call it the elephant plot,” Fleig said.
In another post, Fleig describes why an elevator was a necessary addition to the Rosehill Cemetery in West Ridge. As a cemetery elevated above the railroad, it was difficult to move the casket from the train transportation below to the cemetery at ground level, a problem the elevator could solve.
Another post details a cemetery with a liquor license. Grieving families visiting Bohemian Cemetery in North Park would head over to Scheiner’s Beer Hall and Road House for refreshments afterward, he said. Many cemeteries also had picnic grounds, dancing pavilions, bowling alleys and more nearby to give families a place to relax together, and the proximity of the beer hall and other amenities to Bohemian Cemetery required a liquor license.
Fleig also has written about the hitchhiker ghost stories for the Halloween season as well. He describes the tale of the flapper girl hitchhiker from the Jewish Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park. A young Jewish woman would often attend dances at the nearby Melody Mill Ballroom in North Riverside, and then ask any men she met for a ride home. They would find themselves dropping her in the cemetery, watching her vanish into the tombstones.
While some of these cemeteries have odd and interesting stories, Fleig holds love for even the seemingly normal plots of land where history and ancestors remain buried beneath the bustling present-day life happening above them.
“As much as I would like to concentrate on the larger and popular cemeteries in the Chicago area, there are so many wonderful and smaller burial grounds within Chicago and Cook County that deserve to be celebrated,” Fleig wrote in one post. “These cemeteries may not have unusual or headline-grabbing stories, but they are so important to the fabric of our local history.”
Now retired and living in Phoenix, Fleig still makes frequent trips to Chicago to visit his daughters and explore the city.
“My heart is still in Chicago,” Fleig said. “I just don’t want to shovel snow anymore.”
Fleig plans to continue to update the blog whenever he can, and says he has much more information to add in the next couple months.
Cemeteries are “fascinating. They’re worth exploring, they’re worth learning about,” Fleig said.