How Chicago's Graceland Cemetery Built a Prairie and Lost My Ancestors

Of all the stories whirling around Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery, the best one, meaning the most Chicago one, isn’t about ghosts or superstition but class. Hauntings and horror stories are a staple of cemeteries the world over, but only a city with a labor struggle pedigree like Chicago’s — site of the 1886 Haymarket Riot, setting for Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle,and birthplace of the International Workers of the World — could spawn a cemetery legend like the one about George Pullman.

If you don’t know the Pullman Graceland legend — or even who Pullman was — you’ll hear about him here in due time. There are some other people I want you to know about first. Some people just as important in my book of Chicago history, who share the same resting grounds as Pullman: my great-grandfather Karl Ostberg and my great-grandmother Anna Nelson Ostberg.

Like George Pullman, Karl and Anna each have a plot in Graceland Cemetery on the city’s north side — though “plot” isn’t quite the word for Pullman’s spot, as you’ll see.

Karl’s grave, in 2012.

Karl and Anna are buried in graves marked by small, flat, rectangle-shaped slabs with nothing but their names and birth and death dates for an inscription. They lie in the southeast section of Graceland, with a cemetery road marking one boundary of the section and a wall where Chicago’s red line elevated train runs along marking another boundary. My great-grandfather lies right up against this wall, right at the cemetery’s perimeter. Which means to visit his grave, you’ll inevitably have to endure the roar and rattle of the el passing by at some point. The el tracks are so close, the train shakes the wall. My great-grandmother lies a few rows in from the wall, near a tree, but still close enough that her grave bears the train rumble night and day too.

Anna’s grave, in 2012.

Almost all the graves around them are like theirs. Flat and simple with just a name and date inscription and the occasional “Baby” or “Mother” or “Father” — or “Mutter” and “Vater,” as this is a section of immigrants. Many of the names end in “son” or “sen” or “berg,” which suggests the place of origin for these people was Scandinavia. This was true for my great-grandparents. Karl and Anna were emigrants from Norway who came to the U.S. in 1906 along with their four children: my grandfather John Trygve Ostberg and my great-aunts Alfield and Astrid and great-uncle Victor. After arriving in Chicago, they lived not far from Graceland, near Southport and Byron, and the children were enrolled in a school nearby (James G. Blaine). In Chicago, Karl would find work as a carpenter. Anna would have one more baby, Dorothy, but wouldn’t live to take care of her. She died during childbirth in 1912. Karl died in 1927.

My parents looking for Karl and Anna’s graves in Graceland in 2012, with el train running by.

The gap in time probably explains the gap between their graves — perhaps their graves would’ve been closer together had they died with fewer years between them. More likely it was an economic issue.

Karl and Anna were working-class people. Their children wouldn’t do much schooling beyond grammar school. As an adult Trygve, my grandfather, was drafted into World War I and afterward worked as a mechanic and then as a janitor during the Depression, World War II, and into the 1950s. His son, my father, was born almost a year to the day before the stock market crash that ushered in the Depression. He and my aunt ensuingly had the kind of childhood you’d expect given the national economic circumstances and their status as first-generation Americans born to uneducated working-class immigrants. Dad worked as a child (and I do mean child, not teenager), selling Christmas trees out of a lot during the winter, selling flowers in taverns in the summer (the idea being that people who’d had a few might be more likely to part with their money). He and my aunt took turns going to the local bakery every day to ask for the old bread, a task they both hated for the shame of it. For a time they lived near a coalyard and railroad tracks and my dad and his friends had a better time waiting for coal cars to come and go so they could gather the coal pieces that fell off the cars. Once my grandfather even drove with my dad beyond the city limits to farmland to try and steal a few ears of corn out of the cornfields (they were able to nab a few ears, only to find out it was cattle corn).

My dad’s family lived in Lakeview, but it wasn’t much like the Lakeview that people know today. They lived in a series of homes over the years, getting evicted from one after another for not being able to pay the rent, each home more run-down than the next. There are a couple pictures of my dad and my aunt from those days, about 8 or 9 years old and standing outside the house they were currently living in. You can see the house behind them, with a big gaping hole in the side of it. Not an open doorway or cellar door or anything — just a big gaping hole that they were too poor to get fixed properly. This was the house by the coalyard and railroad line, in the 3300 block of N. Racine, a back lot house. These days the fashionable term is “coach house,” a kind of property in high demand. The coalyard and railroad tracks are gone from that neighborhood, and according to some real estate sites the “coach house” has been thoroughly rehabbed and now features a skylight, a Jacuzzi, and “cathedral ceilings.” When my dad lived in it, its features were a rat and roach problem and no tub or shower for washing yourself.

My dad (left) with a friend, early 1930s. The building behind them is where my dad lived, 3308 N. Racine, Chicago.

It might sound to today’s generations like something out of a sad book or movie, a cliché, maybe even a joke. Well, it wasn’t and it isn’t. It was his life and his childhood, and anyone who really knows Chicago history — its full history, its people’s history — knows this was how it was for thousands of its citizens. Chicago wasn’t always a city of wine bars along the river, “craft” donuts and breweries and coffee chains, and banal You Are Beautiful “street art.” Not even close. Still isn’t, despite the best efforts of the city’s wealthy and gentrification.

All of this is to say: My great-grandparents got the gravestones and burial plots they and their children could best afford — and they probably had to scrape together every penny just to buy them. 

But a gravestone is worth it. Gravestones are important. Even poor men’s gravestones like the plain ones at the periphery, in the “cheap seats” so to speak, of a cemetery. So scrape together is what the survivors do. In Western cultures, a gravestone is a record of a life lived, a proof of existence and a marker of respect and humanity. Karl’s and Anna’s humble plots showed my great-grandparents were here, on earth and among the community, and that someone cared about them. That they were loved and respected enough to be buried properly, to be identified and represented.

Gravestones are so important, so symbolic of the bodies and human life they literally guard over, when one gets vandalized — toppled or broken or written on or stolen — it’s considered a major desecration and dishonor. The idea of someone messing with your loved ones’ burial plots produces horror in most sane-thinking people. There’s no justification for damaging the resting plots of dead people, and we know it and we have laws against it as well as social taboos. We write horror plots about it, knowing audiences will viscerally react to the notion of the living taking advantage of the dead.

Burial plot for Augustus Dickens, brother of Charles.

Likewise, we pity people who died too poor or alone to have any gravestone. There’s a difference between a person who chooses cremation or a “green burial” and someone who just has nothing or no one to even make the choice of what happens to their body after death. An unmarked grave is a mark of shame — at the very least, we feel sorry for the unknown souls who went out in such an anonymous fashion. In Graceland, a good example of this is the burial plot of the brother of one of the most famous and influential writers in the English language. Augustus Dickens’, brother of the great novelist Charles Dickens, led a life as colorful as one of his brother’s characters, but he died destitute in Chicago in 1866. He and his common-law wife and their children were all buried in unmarked plots — small, flat, round markers with just the plot number on them — in a section on the west side of Graceland Cemetery. While Dickens’ brother’s fate was no secret — the cemetery keeps records of all the people buried there, even if the plots don’t give a name — it was still seen as a sad and pathetic, that the close family of someone so famous and revered was lying in a pauper’s grave, not far from the great mausoleums of others so famous and revered. Until about 15 years ago, when some fans of Charles and descendants of Augustus decided to pool together some funds and momentum to buy Augustus and his family a proper headstone. Why did they do it? Out of respect and humanity. Because that’s what a headstone means to most people — my own family, including Karl and Anna, no exception.

Headstone installed for Augustus Dickens and family around 2004.

One more comparison now. Between Karl and Anna’s plots (or even the Chicago Dickens’) and railroad magnate George Pullman’s. Pullman’s gravesite is in another section of Graceland from my family’s. While Pullman’s also has just his name and lifespan dates on it, it’s a headstone, not a flat stone, standing maybe a foot or so above the ground. Oh and behind it is a monument — an actual monument, also with Pullman’s name, only this time in huge letters, and a towering Corinthian column on a platform with steps leading up to two curved benches on either side. It’s not exactly easy to miss, in other words.

George Pullman’s grave at Graceland.

Surrounded by trees and lawn, Pullman’s monument is neighbor to the tombs and mausoleums of some of Chicago’s most wealthy and influential former residents: Daniel Burnham, Potter Palmer, Marshall Field, the McCormicks, Joseph Medill, Charles Wacker — the kind of folks everyone in Chicago knows by name, since these are the names plastered all over the city, on street signs, on hotels, all over downtown Chicago. The people who built Chicago, you might say — so long as you don’t take the word “built” too literally. So long as you don’t reserve it for anyone who actually builds things…say, a railroad laborer or a carpenter.

The contrast between graves like my great-grandparents’ and those of people like Pullman has always, in my opinion, been what made Graceland Cemetery such an interesting and revealing place. Same cemetery, same city, but the contrast in the spaces allotted to Chicago citizens from opposite ends of the class spectrum shows what a divisive and unequal place Chicago (and by extension, America) has always been. And still is, as the people who run Graceland have recently made clear.

A year ago my parents and I went to Graceland only to discover we couldn’t see or even get to our family’s graves anymore. They hadn’t been removed — not as far as we can tell. Instead they’ve been completely covered over with a wide patch of weeds over six feet tall and too thick to walk through or even see the ground, meaning the graves themselves.

Yeah, this is where Anna’s grave is…somewhere.

When I say “completely covered” and “too thick to walk through” I’m not exaggerating. That day, I tried to get through the weeds to Anna’s grave but I may as well have tried sprinting through the deep of an ocean. And even as I started to try, it occurred to me I had a good chance of a snake or rat or coyote leaping out at me (no, not hysteria on my part — a family of coyotes has been regular visitors to the cemetery for years now, tolerated for helping to keep the rodent population down). The back wall by the el, where Karl lies, was also drowning in weeds and thicket, and frankly it all looked like a mess. My dad stood in a path in the middle of all this looking one way, then the next, confused and trying to figure out what happened to his grandparents’ resting place.

My father looking for his grandparents’ graves at Graceland in 2018. His grandmother’s is somewhere in the weeds behind him, beneath the tree. My dad is about 6 feet tall, for reference.

Who did this? And what is this?

Apparently, this field of weeds is Graceland’s “prairie restoration project.” Or “prairie installation.” Something like that. Graceland started installing it in 2014, with the accomplishment of a design firm called Wolff Landscape Architecture and a landscaping contractor called the Pizzo Group.

The “prairie” covers 2.5 acres, specifically the entire southeast section (where my family’s graves are), a section of probably at least 100 graves. It has not been planted near any of the graves in the sections where wealthier people are buried, nor has any part of it been installed in an empty section with no graves (more on that in a minute). It extends from the perimeter wall (by the el) to a couple feet before the lawn (or at least, what used to be the lawn) meets the cemetery road. There are a couple “paths” mowed through the weeds that leave a few graves exposed, but otherwise all the plots that stand for the human beings buried there are completely invisible and inaccessible.

There is also no sign anywhere that lists the people buried there, nothing acknowledging them for visitors and descendants to at least read and reflect on, much less to aid in locating specific graves. Instead, the Pizzo Group has installed 3 or 4 informational signs about prairie flowers, birds, trees, and their project itself throughout the section. Their name is on every sign. Not the names of the people who rest here and whose families bought these plots — just Pizzo.

Signage in the southeast section of Graceland.

That day, while trying to figure out what had happened, the only person around to ask was a caretaker or security guard at the front gate who told us if we wanted to see our family’s graves “all we have to do” is call ahead a couple weeks and the cemetery would be happy to “mow a path” to our loved ones’ graves so we could pay our respects. In other words, from now on we need to ask the cemetery’s permission to see the graves my family bought and paid for and nag the cemetery about mowing a path to even get to the graves. Which also means we’d have to trust that someone will actually follow through with this by the day we’d been given permission to come and see our family’s graves — and that the “path” was mowed to the correct ones. Same for the descendants of anyone else buried in that particular section.

Okay, so what about the how and the why?

According to some PR materials on the Pizzo Group’s website, to install this prairie or giant nest or what-have-you, the section (plots included) had to be set fire to so the grass and earth there could burn and be turned over for planting seeds. After the first planting took and the weeds grew like, well, weeds, the cemetery has to cut down the weeds and burn them annually to allow new growth. So basically every year now the resting plots of at least 100–200 human beings are set fire to for the purpose of maintaining a giant, anachronistic weed garden.

Graceland’s and the Pizzo Group’s grand idea is to “bring back” the prairie to Chicago. Because a long long time ago this is supposedly what Chicago looked like before being settled by Europeans: a big random weed thicket on top of old headstones.

In actuality, most of the land that we now know as “Chicago” was more swamp, sand, and woodland than prairie. Prairie was the landscape of areas farther south and west of city limits. Also, while the people who lived here long ago (i.e., Native Americans) did indeed perform controlled burns as a way to manage the land and plant and tree growth, for the love and respect of all things sacred they probably didn’t do it where their dead ancestors were preserved or buried. To flagrantly disregard a site set aside for remembering and keeping the bodies of the dead by setting fire to it, throwing down some seeds, and nailing up some informational signs would have been viewed as immense disrespect for one’s ancestors and community.

If I sound angry, it’s because I am — and so is my father and the rest of our family.

The day my parents and I discovered what had been done we went home stunned and upset. We took pictures, we told the rest of the family (my 5 siblings and my father’s sister and cousins). We made some more attempts to contact someone at the cemetery (and Pizzo Group) by email and phone to find out more about this project, who had green-lighted it, if anyone had asked the descendants’ permission— but we never got any response. My parents returned to the cemetery a couple more times over the winter and spring to see if the “prairie” looked any better or had been tamed a bit — maybe the cemetery responded by clearing some of the weeds away a bit, my dad hoped. But it all looked just as bad as the day we discovered it last summer. If anything, outside of summer, when the weeds have no flower blooms, it all just looks even rattier and bizarre.

Karl’s grave is somewhere around here, by the el wall. Looks good, doesn’t it?

Since then my father has brought up the problem numerous times. He cannot believe this has happened to his grandparents’ graves, in the city and neighborhood he grew up in. He doesn’t know what to do about it, doesn’t know how Graceland’s board and these landscaping contractors can just steamroll ahead with a project so flagrantly disrespectful and poorly thought out.

To add insult to injury, Graceland and Pizzo have been given accolades for this tremendously bad idea of theirs. In 2018 Pizzo won “the gold award” from the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association for this project. That same year the company also conducted walking tours of the Graceland “prairie,” with promises of prime bird-watching possibilities: “Bring your camera and binoculars, because you’ll see dozens of locally native plant species and any number of rare birds as Graceland has become one of Chicago’s best bird-watching hotspots.” What you won’t see, though, is the names and proof of existence of the people whose families trusted Graceland enough to keep their remains there and protect them from harm and desecration.

And that’s the most apt word for this project: desecration.

It makes little difference whether anyone finds this so-called “prairie” pretty or “natural.” Or what the intentions were of everyone involved. Though it’s hard not to question those as well.

If the Graceland board and Pizzo and Wolff et al really thought they were doing something so “beautifying” and environmentally progressive, why didn’t they get the word out about their plans ahead of time? Why didn’t they announce their project beforehand and give others — namely, the descendants of the people buried in Graceland, especially in the affected section — a chance to give feedback or have their say? Why didn’t they ask permission? Which, to make it clear what’s so wrong with this project, they didn’t do. They didn’t ask permission. 

Most of the information about this project is only on the Pizzo Group’s and Graceland Cemetery’s websites, rather than in the larger Chicago news, or anywhere the larger community could have seen it and commented on it. There’s undoubtedly a reason for that. Descendants would’ve been pesky about it. They would’ve pointed out what a bad and disrespectful idea it was and is.

More pictures of the weeds (“prairie”) at Graceland. People are buried under all that.

Also not in the project masterminds’ “good intentions” favor is the fact that this “prairie” was not installed in one of the empty sections of Graceland. Why not? Wouldn’t that have made more sense? Take a section where no one is buried, where no headstones are, and plant the seeds there. No one is disturbed in their eternal rest, no families are blocked from future viewings, no one gets upset or disrespected. But my guess is this: $$$$. No one gets paid either. Those empty areas of the cemetery are potential plots, meaning future income for Graceland. Meanwhile, they already have Karl and Anna’s money. And I guess it’s just too bad Karl and Anna and their children (and all the other people buried in the southeast section) gave Graceland their trust as well. 

Same goes for descendants like us. Even if Karl and Anna didn’t have the grandest gravesites in the place, my family (certainly my dad) always took a bit of pride in the fact that they were buried in such a beautiful and famous cemetery. My ancestors may not have been rich and famous, and most visitors to the cemetery probably weren’t even aware of or interested in the section where they rest — too busy beelining to the mausoleums (as well as some of the creepier-looking, supposedly haunted graves on the grounds) —but as far as we were (and are) concerned, Karl and Anna count just as much as any and everyone else buried in Graceland.

The wall of weeds between the cemetery road and the el wall where Karl, my great-grandfather, lies.

And we, the descendants, were a living presence in the cemetery too. My family has been coming to Graceland to visit Karl and Anna’s graves since before I was born — my five older siblings all have childhood memories of visiting. After my father got married in 1954, he and my mother lived in an apartment just a few blocks from Graceland, at Clark and Byron. Even as they moved farther away over the years, to the Dunning neighborhood and then to the northwest suburbs, they never forgot Karl and Anna’s graves. I visited Graceland as a child, as a teen, and as an adult. I’ve visited with my parents and siblings, with friends, and on my own. When I lived in Lincoln Square between 2000 and 2008, I used to walk over on the weekends and visit Karl and Anna. I’d often find their graves covered in dirt and leaves, sinking a bit into the earth, and I’d do my best to scrape off the mud that was starting to cover them. When my aunt June (my dad’s sister) came back to Chicago to visit from Iowa, my dad would take her to Graceland to see their grandparents’ graves, as well as to their parents’ in Edens Cemetery. My siblings have also visited Graceland as adults, on their own or with their families.

Me with one of my sisters and one of my brothers, sitting on Pullman’s grave (fittingly, all things considered now) at Graceland Cemetery in the 1980s.

With a cemetery as famous as Graceland, one that has such famous people buried in it — architects, dancers, athletes, city planners and builders, inventors and entrepreneurs — it can be easy to forget that there are ordinary Chicagoans buried there too, and ordinary Chicagoans still visiting there, for non-starstruck reasons. It’s not all just tourists and ghost hunters. Some of us in the city and surrounding suburbs actually have family resting there, family we remember, care about, and still take the time to go and pay our respects too. Isn’t that what a cemetery is for? If you’re in the cemetery business, or serving on a cemetery board, for any other reason than protecting and honoring the dead buried there and the wishes of their descendants, you’re in the wrong business. If you’re in it for tourism, for example, or for landscape architecture awards or environmentalism kudos, you’ve got no business being in the business of the dead. 

Why did the Graceland board allow this? What were they thinking? Who do they think they serve? Who do they think a cemetery is for? I’d really like to know, because when I research this project, I find weird remarks like this one from the head of the landscape architect firm (Wolff) to the other landscape firm(Pizzo): “Everybody who is involved with the project is blown away by how quickly it looked so good. This includes, I’m sure, if I could only hear them, tens of thousands of riders per day on the CTA Red and Purple Lines, who look down into the cemetery on their way to and from the loop.” And all I can say is, I really have to wonder if the speaker of this opinion has been on public transit a day in his life, especially the red line, if he thinks those of us financially or otherwise limited to relying on the el and buses of this city spend our commutes fawning all over cemetery landscaping. But yeah, Ted, it looks so good and stuff. If you could only hear us.

It angers me, as I’m sure it angers my parents, that my father, Karl and Anna’s grandson, has lived to the age of 91, survived the poverty of his childhood and the Great Depression as well as serving in a war (Korean), raised 6 kids and more than a dozen grandchildren, and successfully did so without his children or grandchildren suffering the poverty he did, only to see this happen — to see his immigrant grandparents’ graves treated like a science experiment and used as an entry in some local landscaping competition. Did it occur to anyone at Graceland that some of the descendants of the dead in the desecrated section might have considered being buried themselves there someday? Or considered buying a new headstone for anyone in that section (like the good folks who funded Augustus Dickens’ headstone)?

My father trying to find his grandparents’ graves in Graceland, Pizzo, and Wolff’s award-winning “prairie.”

Would any of the people on Graceland’s board and staff or Pizzo and Wolff’s staff want this to happen to their family graves, without even the courtesy of permission? I can confidently say the answer is no — no they wouldn’t. If they wouldn’t want it done to their family property and resting places, they shouldn’t have done it to anyone else’s. That they did is disturbing and shameful. Worse yet, no one has bothered to respond when any of my family has reached out for answers. No one has even asked if there could be a solution. 

The last thing I want to say is that I realize I promised some kind of George Pullman story, a class tale — so here it is.

George Pullman was a wealthy businessman who made his fortune in the railroad industry after inventing a luxury sleeping car. His invention came just as the first transcontinental lines were laid down and changed America forever. But Pullman didn’t just hit upon the right idea at the right time — he went on to monopolize the railroad car business and build a model town on the south side of Chicago for his employees to live in. It was called Pullman of course, his name stamped on the town same as it was on the side of his sleeping cars. But Pullman the town became better known as a model of American-style feudalism than the happy worker-bee hive the bossman tried to pass it off as. His workers labored 16-hour days and were paid starvation wages, especially the African Americans who made up his crew of train porters. Exorbitant rents (automatically deducted from his workers’ pay) and company-planted spies were as much a feature of the town as its neat little red-brick rowhouses and fancy Victorian-style hotel.

When a financial panic hit in 1893, Pullman laid off workers and cut wages but refused to lower rents in his cutesy feudal town. Which led to a railroad workers’ strike in 1894 that spread throughout the country, ending up in riots, arrests, and federal troops storming the streets of Chicago to break the strike. Afterwards, Pullman’s reputation never recovered, even if he did “win” the strike. He was ordered to sell his town by the courts. And when he died only three years later, he left instructions to be buried under tons of concrete, to ward off desecration and revenge by all the workers he’d screwed over.Fortunately for them, history has taken over where a concrete grave foiled the common man. Today in Chicago, Pullman is remembered as a “fat cat” at best and a tyrant at worst.

Where was he buried? If you’ve been paying attention earlier, you’ll know: in Graceland. Which is fitting, given the cemetery’s recent developments. Extra care was taken by Graceland to protect the resting place of this uber-wealthy railroad magnate. It only makes sense, sadly, that no care was taken by Graceland to protect the resting places of 100 or 200 poor. 

To all the people who worked on Graceland Cemetery’s “prairie restoration” project: Shame on you. From the great-granddaughter of the ones whose graves you desecrated. Consider this essay a well-deserved haunting.

Karl and Anna in Oslo in 1896, on their wedding day.