Homewood

There’s a short article in today’s Trib that is both gruesome and sad. Someone found a leg lying in a pile of dirt at Homewood Cemetery. It was near the part of the cemetery where Cook County’s indigent are buried. A spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Department said they had been doing some work back there. No crime was suspected, just an honest mistake.

This does not surprise me. Though that part of the cemetery is labeled “Garden of Peace” on their map, it’s not a garden, and it’s not peaceful. It’s a small space where hundreds of people are buried each year and the earth is crowded.

Several years ago I was moved when I read about the annual memorial service held at the Chicago Temple for those who were buried by the county. The names of the 300 or so people who are buried at public expense are read out. I’m not sure what they do for the dozen or so each year who are buried without names. It reminded me of a local cemetery, a small one in a grove at the state mental institution in St. Peter that I stumbled upon. There were headstones there in neat rows, but they didn’t have names, only numbers. (Those people have been identified and recently there was a remembering ceremony for them.) At Homewood there’s nothing to mark the place where hundreds of people lie buried. The closest thing is a memorial to those who died during the great heat wave.

And this small marker for W. Earl Lewis, a stubborn man who started the ceremony at the Temple because he thought nobody should be buried without someone marking their passing.

When I started to write In the Wind, my imagination was rummaging through the attic of my brain and found an old newspaper clipping about the service. So that sad corner of Homewood ended up in my book. It’s where the narrator’s mother is buried.

It’s probably bad juju to do this, but here’s a snippet from my work in progress, a sequel to In the Wind.

A memory came to me, one of the day Jim drove me to the cemetery in a suburb south of the city. We’d found out she had been interred there with other indigents in an unmarked grave. I’d bought a bunch of flowers with my own money and cradled them in my arms the whole way, the cellophane wrapper making a crackling noise. Driving through the cemetery gate, my heart lifted to see such a beautiful and peaceful place, with shady lawns, winding lanes, and row on row of markers. We picked up a photocopied hand-drawn map at the front office and drove to the area at the far end of the cemetery that was labeled “Garden of Peace” on the map.

But when we got there, it wasn’t a garden at all. There were no trees, no trimmed lawns, no neat rows of tombstones. It looked like a neglected construction site. Weeds grew up through disturbed earth; rocks and dirt lay in piles. I got out and walked across the uneven ground. A bitter wind blew my hair into my face as I watched a backhoe scoop out a trench near the back fence that would hold the most recent of the county’s unclaimed bodies. I felt Jim Tilquist’s hand on my shoulder, heard him ask if I was ready to go home, but I shook my head helplessly. I didn’t know where to leave the flowers.

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