Lake Forest Cemetery Is Alive with History
By Kim Piekos
Hanging out with the gravedigger at Lake Forest Cemetery could be unnerving for anyone -- but not so when the cemetery sexton is Phil Alderks. He’s a faith-filled, dedicated steward of the 23-acre property and handles his job responsibilities with solemnity and sensitivity.
“I’ve developed relationships with the fifth and sixth generations of Lake Forest families, and that means the most to me,” Alderks says. “I’ve known many people who are laid to rest here; this place is filled with meaningful lives.”
“We’re with residents on one of the worst days of their lives. If everything goes smoothly, we’ve done our job," says Lake Forest Cemetery Sexton Phil Alderks.
Sexton is the Middle English word for “keeper of the church grounds,” dating back to when cemeteries were adjacent to churches. As sexton, Alderks tours former and current Lake Foresters around in a car to identify plots or spots in the columbarium they wish to be laid to rest, arranges burials with families and funeral directors, digs graves and sets vaults, maintains the property with his staff and keeps detailed records for the city and state. He’s been at this for 21 years.
“I’ve been told my personality suits what I do here,” Alderks admits. “I’m a calming influence.”
Alderks is a perfectionist about his job and believes that everything that happens at the cemetery is tied to an emotion. “We’re with residents on one of the worst days of their lives. If everything goes smoothly, we’ve done our job. But even a random dandelion on a grave can make a family member feel like we’re not tending to their loved one, and that matters to us.”
The cemetery – which is operated by the City of Lake Forest -- is composed of nine sections today, including a Memorial Garden for those who choose cremation. Lots offer flexibility in terms of burials and cremains, and range in price from $5,100 for a Memorial Garden niche to $14,800 for a burial lot, depending upon where the lot is in the cemetery and how large a lot is desired. Any Lake Forest resident can be laid to rest there, regardless of whether they live in town now or not, but former residents are charged more than current residents. “Once a Lake Forester, always a Lake Forester,” says Alderks. “You’ve got to communicate through a will or an authorization who is to be buried in your lot. State law says we have to follow the bloodline.”
The Lake Forest Cemetery’s location at the northern end of Lake Road was chosen in 1857 by Almerin Hotchkiss as he laid out the village plat, predating the incorporation of the city in 1861.
“Picking a site suitable for the cemetery was the first public work authorized,” Alderks says. Crossed by ravines, the cemetery’s location on high ground prevented water contamination and ensured public health.
Over the years, notable landscape architects have modified the cemetery’s layout. Initially designed by A.M Hirsch in 1860, the cemetery featured a gardenesque style mimicking a floral tapestry. Two entrances flanked the north and south ends of the then University Avenue, now Sheridan Road.
“There were lots of roads in the cemetery back then because people didn’t want to walk on graves,” Alderks notes.
In 1882, William LeBaron Jenney, considered the father of Chicago’s early skyscrapers, moved the entrance to the current Lake Road spot and created an open, treeless field with paths for strolling, with large lots around its perimeter. In 1901, Ossian Cole (O.C.) Simonds, known for his landscape work at Graceland Cemetery and plans for the Morton Arboretum, modified the cemetery design incorporating native plant material and creating vistas within a pastoral landscape.
“Historically, before there were public parks, cemeteries were places full of plant life and art in urban areas – places people could go for peace, quiet and nature,” Alderks explains. “Families had their gardeners tend to the family plot. Now, with our mobile society and fewer family members living here, we try to incorporate larger public plantings in the spirit of Simonds as opposed to individual private plantings. We choose landscaping featuring native plants that make the cemetery sustainable and beautiful.”
Residents have contributed to the beauty of the cemetery for years. The stately stone arch and Gothic-style gates at the entrance to the cemetery were donated in 1919 by Grace and Finley Barrell in memory of their only son, Jack Barrell, who drowned in the Chicago River at age 23. Sculptures of animals, such as foxes and deer, have been created by local artists and added to their family’s headstones.
The cemetery’s first recorded burial was of Martha McClanahan in 1882. The 32-year-old mother of three children was the wife of a colonel in the Confederate Army. Today, the cemetery is the resting site of many well-known captains of industry in Chicago, as well as everyday heroes.
Samuel Dent, a beloved freed slave that fought for the Union Army, is buried in Section A. Dent ran a livery, transporting estate owners and their families to their estates from the train station each summer. Upon his death in 1890, his clients banded together to purchase a plot for Dent and his wife.
Informally regarded as a Presbyterian cemetery long ago, the city sold nine of its 32 acres to the Catholic Diocese of Chicago in 1883 for what is now known as St. Mary’s Cemetery. This is maintained by the Catholic Cemeteries of Chicago today.
Alderks’ biggest takeaway after all these years as sexton is that we’re all the same. “It doesn’t matter who you are or how much you’ve got,” he notes. “We’re all ending up in the same place.”