24 July 2008

Chicago: Waldheim Cemetery's spring rains

Although this story refers to spring flooding at the Chicago area Waldheim Cemetery, it is of interest to those who may have relatives buried there or those visiting in the future.

It discusses the challenges of maintenance faced by the two companies which manage the graves.

The Chicago Tribune story was featured on the Arizona Daily Star online edition.

There are photos of what the cemetery, with more than 200,000 Jewish burials, looked like on April 23.

CHICAGO - At Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park, a sacred Jewish burial ground, there is a section near the Des Plaines River where the tombstones are sinking.

Morris Kaplan’s and Rose Neiman’s gravestones have sunk so low that the dates of death are barely visible.

After a heavy rainstorm this spring, World War II veteran Emil Kleppel’s grave was submerged in standing water. Nearby, a pile of mangled branches covers Sam Getzberg’s gravestone, which apparently was removed from his grave and discarded.

Here at Waldheim, where more than 200,000 Jews are buried, the Hebrew headstones speak to the history of Chicago’s Jewish community. But the areas suffering from occasional flooding and other unkempt sections tell of the struggle to carry Waldheim’s legacy into the future.

As a Jewish cemetery, Waldheim faces unique problems because of the Jewish tradition that bodies be buried in a plain wooden coffin with no concrete vault. As the wood decays over the years, monuments atop those graves are more likely to tilt or fall. In addition, the cemetery’s nearness to the river brings sporadic flooding in areas now used primarily to bury the indigent.

It includes comments from Waldheim Cemetery Co. president Irwin Lapping, who manages about 85% or about 170,000 graves, while the smaller Silverman & Weiss Cemetery, owned by Steve Schwitzman, manages the remainder, about 26,000 graves, including the section near the river.

The story discusses both mens' comments on the difficulties of how the flooding issue might be resolved, while relatives of those buried there are also quoted and are clearly unhappy with the owners' response to the damage.

Waldheim’s history dates to the 1870s, when early Jewish immigrants established synagogues and fraternal organizations that bought cemetery lots for their members. Eventually, the massive area was divided into 288 small cemeteries, each with its own leadership and rules.

“Each one of these cemeteries did whatever they want. If someone wanted to put up a large monument, they did,” said Lapping, also Waldheim’s historian. “It was kind of chaotic because you had different people in control.”

When Jews migrated to the suburbs in the 1940s and synagogues closed or merged, neglect of the cemetery set in.

Lapping became involved in the late 1950s because his grandfather owned one of the caretaker businesses. Soon, Lapping’s firm took over the operations of most of the early groups, except for Silverman and Weiss, which Schwitzman purchased in 1991.

Under Lapping, much of Waldheim gradually underwent an extensive renovation that restored much of its beauty. An endowment was established to care for older graves. Today, Waldheim continues to attract Jewish families who want to be buried there. The company performs about 350 burials every year.

Both companies are challenged by costly maintenance problems such as tipping markers and older graves without any living relatives to care for them. One lacks heavy equipment to raise larger stones, gas prices have impacted upkeep and some Jewish organizations owning land fail to pay for upkeep. The flood-prone river section is no longer sold for graves but was designated for needy families and some burials are still made there.

The story discusses the flooding issue and how other area cemeteries have installed water pumps. For more details, read the complete story at the link above.

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