It's a Living | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

It's a Living 

Nick Mayer was born at Rosehill Cemetary. He figures he may as well die there.

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On this overcast summer afternoon, Nick Mayer drives his blue Oldsmobile under a turreted arch and glides by towering oak trees, grassy lawns, and cool ponds. With one hand on the wheel, he passes Greek maidens clutching urns and stone angels pointing heavenward. He cruises by a chapel with stained glass windows. Waving a hand across the landscape before him, Mayer declares, "When you work in a cemetery, you get to thinking this is yours."

There is a note of pride in his voice. For 50 years (nearly 30 as foreman), Nick Mayer has done everything at Rosehill Cemetery, from digging graves to guarding the fences at Halloween. And Mayer's workplace is also his birthplace; he was born in Rosehill 73 years ago.

Though Mayer got his start where most people end up, he began his life in good company. Founded in 1859, Rosehill stretches over 350 acres on the north side from Ravenswood on the east to Western Avenue on the west and from Peterson on the north to a zigzag line of Bryn Mawr and Bowmanville Avenue on the south, making it the city's largest cemetery. According to Bill Lucas, who gives tours of Rosehill for the Chicago Architecture Foundation, though many of Chicago's wealthiest denizens, such as George Pullman, are buried in the better-known Graceland Cemetery, Rosehill hosts the remains of other movers and shakers.

Resting in Rosehill's approximately 175,000 graves and crypts are Charles Dawes, the 30th U.S. vice president, and 12 Chicago mayors. Here also lie the bones of Charles Hull of Hull House fame, along with those of the first man to make caramel, the man who built the city's first public school, and an actor who appeared in the city's first opera. Austere mausoleums of onetime bankers and dignitaries circle the cemetery's central pond. Rosehill also hosts the remains of merchants such as the Schwinns of the bicycle factory and the Kirks of the soap.

Surrounding the towering obelisks and ornate sculpture of the famous and powerful are the humbler plots of ordinary folk. Bleached stones simply read "Grandma," "Pappa," or "Baby." Whole families lie buried together under matching gravestones; sculptured sleeping lambs sit atop the gravestones of children. But the melancholy that may beset many visitors to Rosehill does not plague Mayer. Here he spends his days among family and old friends.

"I can see my superintendent whenever I want," Mayer says, pulling the Olds over near the middle of Rosehill, pointing to the grave of his old boss, which is marked by a large, simple stone. Mayer has buried six former bosses here. "There are opportunities in a cemetery," he announces. "One of these days you'll walk over your boss."

Over by the Peterson Avenue fence, Mayer's brother lies in a mass grave that was dug with a bulldozer to accommodate victims of an influenza epidemic around 1920. His wife is buried not far from the chapel where the ground rises slightly. His parents are at rest here too.

"I can run by and say hi and keep on going," Mayer deadpans.

Mayer is a lanky man, with a wide jutting jaw and a tall forehead. He wears glasses and his silvery hair has receded and thinned. Despite visible signs of aging, he has an irrepressible energy. His walk is springy and loose limbed, and his arms swing in wide arcs as he talks. He greets people with a boisterous "Howdy doo"; his flat, clipped speech and rapid inflections prod his listener's attention. He is a spinner of tales, a teller of jokes. As another Rosehill worker puts it, "He's the kind of guy you want to have a drink with."

As Rosehill's maintenance foreman, Mayer will tell you he has the perfect job: he has thousands of people under him and none of them talk back. Or he will tell you that he can "cover up his mistakes." Gail Bechman, Rosehill's vice president, says that Mayer's joking helped her get over her initial uneasiness at working in a cemetery.

It was around 1910 when Mayer's father took a job with Rosehill and moved his family into a house on the grounds. It was a simple frame dwelling that sat on the park side of the cemetery, where graves are marked with only single, flat blocks. Mayer was born in the house four years later. Mayer's mother never cared too much for living in Rosehill or for the funerary business. Every time Mayer's mother told somebody what her husband did, they wanted to know if he gave half price on funerals.

But Mayer took to life in the graveyard from the start. There were goldfish to catch, ducks to chase, and plenty of places to hide when he got in trouble, which was often. He romped among the gravestones of Civil War heroes and snuck into the central mausoleum for games of hide-and-seek. He was teased at school, but even that wasn't so bad.

"If you let it roll off your shoulders and laugh about it, and kid them back, it goes by," he says.

In 1932, not long after Mayer started working in Rosehill, the cemetery owners decided to tear down the family's residence. Mayer's family moved off the grounds to the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Ainslie, but his parents later returned: they are buried where the family garden used to be, near the site of their old home.

Mayer went to Senn High School and worked at Rosehill during his vacations. The first summer he mowed the grass. "I spent the next year repairing the lawn mower," he says. Mayer married when he was 19 and went to work full-time at Rosehill. Just as he liked living in the cemetery, Mayer liked working there.

As he drives along Rosehill's unmarked roads, roads he knows by heart, he tells how he used to hide in the air vents of the mausoleum and reach out and grab new workers as they passed by. One time he and a coworker scared a delivery man so badly, the poor guy ended up in the hospital.

But when the talk turns to funerals and mourners, Mayer is less rambunctious. "There are a lot of sad stories," he says.

Perhaps the saddest has to do with one of Rosehill's most famous tenants. In section 12, near the north fence, a mausoleum with bronze doors has the name "Robert Franks" carved across the top. Surrounded by evergreens, the mausoleum sits under the shade of a tree. Franks was the little boy kidnapped and murdered by Leopold and Loeb in 1924. It was a quiet funeral; only the immediate family was allowed in. Mayer says some outsiders tried to sneak in.

"There were a lot of nosy folks, but we kept them out," he says.

As Mayer drives through the cemetery, he points out his favorite monuments. Near the Bryn Mawr fence is a white marble marker that portrays a sleeping woman cuddling a child. The woman died of consumption at the age of 19 in 1854; her infant daughter succumbed two months later. Not too far from the mother and child is a sculpture of a young girl, which is protected by a glass box. Beneath the sculpture lies Lulu Fellows, who, Mayer says, lost her lover and died of a broken heart at the age of 16 in 1883.

"You get used to seeing people crying," he says.

Mayer spots a small group of people huddled by a new grave. A hearse is parked nearby, its back door open. Other than the funeral, Rosehill's stillness is unbroken. There are few visitors to the cemetery now, Mayer says. Mourners come to a grave for about three years, but after that they disappear.

"Everyone's in a hurry these days," he scoffs.

During the Depression, people were not in such a rush, Mayer says. And even if they were, back then death was much more likely to slow them down. Sometimes there were as many as 15 funerals a day at Rosehill. Caskets, mourners, and picnickers alike were brought to the graveyard by the train that stopped by Rosehill's entrance. On Sundays, there were so many visitors that Mayer and his coworkers had to direct traffic. "They'd come here instead of Lincoln Park," he recalls.

Once at the cemetery, visitors could ride a bus along the 25 miles of roads that still crisscross Rosehill. The bus driver sold dandelion wine and cherry liquor on the side. In the winter, visitors could warm themselves next to an outdoor fireplace, and in summer they could cook on the cemetery barbecue. A conservatory was filled with mums and gladiolas, and a clock made of flowers rang out the hour. Chinese pheasants and swans adorned the four ponds.

"It was what you call elegant," Mayer says. Some of the funerals even had their own bands. As he points out, death was a more congenial business back then. Funeral parties would even invite the cemetery workers to join them after a burial at a restaurant just outside the gate.

"The grave diggers would have a few shots in the back, come up front for a sandwich and a cup of coffee, and then go back to work," Mayer says. All the graves were dug by hand then. For a 10 AM funeral, as many as ten men would start at 4 AM to dig a grave. There were also acres to mow and miles of hallways in the mausoleum to scrub. During the winter months, most of the workers would spend their days in the mausoleum polishing the marble floors and halls by hand. Mayer manned the pump house that still supplies the cemetery with all its water. At the height of the Depression, 300 men at 35 cents an hour kept Rosehill spic and span.

"When we hired somebody, we told them, 'We have hard work here,'" Mayer says.

Grave diggers are not the hunched-over Dickensian figures most people imagine them to be, according to Mayer. "A grave digger is a man who likes digging," he says. And there are good grave diggers and bad grave diggers, he explains. A good one digs a hole with straight sides, and if he has done it right the top will be even, not sunken or raised, when the grave is filled.

Now 65 or so workers maintain the cemetery. New graves are dug mostly with machines. Instead of the quiet beat of shovels scooping earth, there is the racket of air hammers. One worker makes the mausoleum floors shine with a buffing machine. The greenhouse, the fancy birds, and the bus are all gone.

Things began to change in the 1950s, Mayer says, not long after he became foreman. The grave diggers had unionized and the resulting higher labor costs made it too expensive to have all the extras at Rosehill, he says. Besides, by the 50s, the number of funerals had begun to drop off because, he says, people were not dying as much. Mourners quit coming as often, or quit coming at all. Picnickers abandoned Rosehill for the parks. Death had become a less congenial business.

Mayer adjusted to the changes at Rosehill and then to the changes in his own life. In 1967, his wife died of leukemia, leaving him with two young children to raise. It was one funeral at Rosehill Mayer sat out. "The cemetery workers did a nice job because it was for me," he says. Even though he spent his days nearby, Mayer stayed away from his wife's grave for a long while. "It was real sickening," he says.

Mayer's children are grown now, but neither plans to carry on the family business. Mayer's son worked in the office at Rosehill during a summer break from college, but didn't go into the cemetery business because, as Mayer puts it, "there isn't enough money in graveyard work."

Although Mayer's children are grown-up, kids still occupy his attention. Vandals are his main aggravation. He pulls his car up to where a large, flower-filled vase stood until recently. Now there is only a depression in the grass. Kids stole the vase, which took two men to move, Mayer says. Kids push over monuments, climb up the water tower, and fall in the ponds. Five or six years ago a little girl fell in Rosehill's northern pond and drowned. One Halloween, some kids even managed to pull a body halfway out of a mausoleum, Mayer says disgustedly. Halloweens have gotten so bad that now police patrol the cemetery on October 31.

Since Mayer is semiretired, he escapes the aggravation with jaunts to Hawaii. "They have grass skirts over there and I have a cigarette lighter," he says with a smirk.

Before heading back to the office, Mayer drives past one last plot.

"I'm in section 16," he says. He pulls over the Olds at a spot not far from the chapel. It's near quitting time and the summer sun has slowly begun to set. Mayer points between a number of headstones to a grassy spot on a low hill. "I picked the spot with my wife," he says. She is already here. There are two plots for his children. They chose the spot because it had some height, which they liked, he says. "I was born here, I might as well die here," says Mayer.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.

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