Today’s outing: The Dairy Queen at Irving Park and Central, then over to Narragansett to swing by my dad’s childhood home on Nashville Avenue. Headed down the crowded, brutally potholed avenue, Dad said, “Here’s Mount Olive Cemetery.” Where most of his family is interred. We turned in. I have a general idea where the relatives are buried–mostly his mother’s family, the Sieversens–but he has a precise sense of where to go. So there they were: his parents, his grandparents, many aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Until five or so years ago, I remember going to Mount Olive just once, the day my grandmother was buried in September 1975. But since my mom passed away in 2003 and we started visiting her family’s cemetery–Holy Sepulchre, so far on the South Side that it’s actually beyond the city limits–I’ve come to Mount Olive several times, too.
Many stories to tell there, I’m sure. Here are a couple of surface things I’ve noticed. It’s clear from the great majority of older graves that the cemetery was a resting place for Norwegians (maybe some other Scandinavians, too), mostly Protestants. There’s a drinking fountain near the entrance in the form of a Viking warrior, complete with helmet and flowing beard. But like the rest of the city, the ethnic makeup of this neighborhood is changing, too. Most new graves appear to belong to Latino families, many Catholic. It’s the kind of mixing that I expect would have been unlikely in life. Now here the communities are together.
Cemetery walking always produces something striking or poignant. Maybe because we had a brother who died at the age of 2, I’m always been brought up short by children’s markers. At one of the family graves I saw that three children, ages 4 or younger, were buried with their parents.
Nearby, I came across the grave of Junior Jansen, 1925-1930, a grave remarkable for the legend “Our Boy” and the vivid, clear photo of the boy who had been buried there. It’s hard for me to imagine that picture has lasted out in the weather all these decades. Next to Junior Jansen’s stone was another Jansen marker–a broken monument bearing a sculpted figure of a young girl. Strange thing: someone has evidently gone to the trouble of setting the figure upright–but unattached to its damaged lower portion or the original base.
Another thing about the Norwegian part of the cemetery: slowly, surely, nature is taking its course. Trees and shrubs have overwhelmed some graves. But what you notice more are stones left askew as the ground heaves and shifts through the seasons and maybe through the sinking or collapse of the underground vaults that are supposed to keep everything tidy. You come across headstones that are falling onto their faces and monuments that have toppled backward or sideways. You find groups of markers that seem jumbled together, clumped at odd angles, with a collection of apparently unrelated names. Looking at the years on the markers I passed, it seems that most date to between 1900 and 1950. I saw only a handful dated after 1960. The most recent was from 1997. One has the impression, looking down the rows of tilted, angled, sometimes broken markers that for the descendants of most who lie here, this is a place out of mind.