My digital project is a bit of a flight of fancy as I will be focusing on my print project this semester, but it is still one that I find fascinating and could potentially see myself working on in the future (especially if 30-hour days are invented). The backstory of this particular project can be found in the fact that my previous apartment in Chicago lay within 50 feet of one cemetery and within one city block of three additional cemeteries. For exercise and photographic fancy, I would often wander these lush green urban gardens on gorgeous weekend afternoons enjoying the wildlife (Coyotes! Deer!) and snapping photos of monuments that intrigued me. Like a gateway drug, this led to other cemeteries further and further afield. As it turns out, Chicago and the surrounding suburbs have no shortage of dead people, some famous, some infamous, some average joes, and some average joes with fabulously eccentric monuments.
The website I am proposing would be a WordPress blog featuring photo-heavy posts about interesting monuments and mausoleums that I found in Chicago-area cemeteries. The posts would include discussion of the monuments of a variety of figures notable in national history (ex. George Pullman and Louis Sullivan), locally important characters (ex. Ruth Page, Al Capone and his gang, and Marshall Field), victims of local historical tragedies like the Iroquois Theater fire or the Eastland disaster, and other interesting residents of Chicago’s most permanent neighborhoods. Posts would also discuss relevant issues like trends cemetery architecture and monument symbolism (particular carvings, group membership symbols, etc.) related to the particular monument being discussed. While the scope would be city-wide, there would be an opportunity to curate collections related to specific cemeteries using tags, as well as statuary themes, historical events, and other useful categories. Blog posts would allow users to provide their own thoughts via comments and the site would include an integrated Twitter account/widget to push out new post notifications to followers. A dedicated email address would solicit individual users to contribute suggestions for future blog posts based on their own exploration.
The imagined audience for this blog would be primarily non-academic, catering to individuals with an interest in history generally and in Chicago history specifically, as well as a growing segment of cemetery sightseers. The hope would be to foster even greater appreciation of these sites of rich history and ensure their preservation for future generations by inspiring Chicago-area residents and visitors from all over the world to explore these sites. Chicago’s cemeteries are well loved online in social-networking sites. For example, a Flickr group dedicated to the topic has almost 300 members who have posted nearly 3,000 photos and Yelp features glowing reviews of many of the city’s more famous cemeteries, including 40 for Graceland Cemetery alone. This does not translate to a complete and in-depth representation of Chicago cemeteries online. Individual cemetery websites are inconsistent in terms of content, with many focusing exclusively on providing information regarding current and future interments and very few providing compelling evidence of the cultural heritage resources that lie within their gates. One website that I found focuses on graveyards in Illinois, but the site does not appear to have been updated since 2010 and the overall design of the homepage smacks of mid-90s geocities-style design logic. I think there is definitely a void to be filled by a user-friendly blog on this topic due to the organic interest it has already garnered and the lack of a unified resources for this type of information. A potential model for the types of posts that I am imagining would be the well-executed site AfterLife, which is dedicated to sharing English-language monument and historical information drawn from the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
See the photos included below for examples. On the left, Al Capone’s in-ground headstone (which is accompanied by a large family monument, not shown). On the right, the monument of a gentleman who really, really loved Chicago (“Forty three years resident in Chicago. Twenty three years her faithful public servant.”)