Scott Eden; reporter, author

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THE LAST MAN TO EVER LET YOU DOWN

Chicago Reader
August 31, 2007


From the second floor windows of the yellow-brick house at the corner of Clark Street and Irving Park Road, the view extends east and south across 14-and-a-half bucolic acres. The lot is filled with elms, cottonwoods, flowering cherries, mulberries, trees of heaven and, amid the foliage, ranks of stone obelisks like some miniature Egypt. It's a backyard that's also a graveyard. The caretakers of Wunder's Cemetery have always lived rent-free in this 2,000-square-foot late Victorian—three bedrooms, two baths, hardwood floors, natural light.

Twelve other cemeteries in Chicago have caretaker's residences on their grounds, but the one at Wunder's is perhaps the most conspicuous, sitting there prominently on prime real estate at a major intersection in walking distance to Wrigley Field. Wunder's is among the oldest still-operating cemeteries in Chicago. Owned by First St. Paul's, itself the oldest Lutheran church in the city, and named for a former pastor, Wunder's came into being in 1859, about the same time as its neighbors, the larger more-famous Graceland, which lies just across Irving to the north, and the small Jewish graveyards directly to the south. Roughly 15,000 bodies are buried at Wunder's. The earliest recorded birth date for a person interred there is 1787, and a majority of the graves' occupants died in the century between 1860 and 1960. Many of the early tombstones and monuments at Wunder's (and at all old Chicago graveyards, for that matter) were formed from a combination of Lake Michigan sand and poor-grade concrete, a mixture that has stood neither the test of time nor the elements. The stones look as if they're melting. Weather has long ago erased the names etched into their plinths. From time to time, these aged monuments will topple, and the fallen pillars and stela and monoliths and obelisks will be removed to a pile—which itself resembles the ruin of some ancient tomb—at the rear of the cemetery, behind the garage. The descendents of the people commemorated by these collapsed monuments might wish to pay for a replacement, but this has become less and less likely as the generations pass. And, at any rate, there's no guarantee that a relative could be found and contacted in the first place: The Wunder's office, run part-time by a First St. Paul parishioner named Valerie Stodden, has fallen out of touch, she estimates, with more than two-thirds of the descendants of the Wunder's dead.

You do not have to wander long through a scene like this before the thought occurs to you that most of the people buried here are now entirely forgotten—their lives wiped clean from the collective memory as if they'd never existed. It's enough to make you realize that, chances are, and barring some act (or accident) of historical import, there will come a time when no one on earth will recall your existence, either. Stories about my own family, after all, come to a total blank stop a generation before my great-grandparents. What happens when there's no one left to remember those who have come and gone? Let the dead bury their dead, as the scripture reads, courtesy of Luke, and about the only people still carrying out the act of venerating the long-departed anonymous are the likes of Bob Wells, the current caretaker and head gravedigger at Wunder's Cemetery.

*

Wells has had the job only for the last two and a half years. His predecessor, though, a man named Mark Nyhart, served as caretaker for nearly two decades, and during that time he achieved a kind of micro-local fame. Six-foot-three and built like an NFL-caliber tight end, he often went around dressed in an ankle-length duster and a high Stetson hat that made him look even taller. Nights, he worked the door at a nearby bar called Joy Blue, on Southport Avenue and Irving Park, and sometimes he bounced at Wunder's as well. Teenagers and twenty-somethings have from time to time been known to sneak over the fence and onto the cemetery's grounds late at night to drink beer. When this happened, Nyhart liked to pull on a grim-reaper costume—black robe, black hood, skull mask— tiptoe behind a gravestone, and burst onto the revelers. They ran shrieking and berserk into the night. A regular at the neighborhood taverns, Nyhart was occasionally referred to as the Mayor of Wrigleyville, but most people knew him simply as Digger. He had business cards printed up of his own creation: they pictured the black-and-white silhouette of a cross and an open grave under a leafless tree, like something out of an Edward Gorey illustration. Oriented vertically, the cards read across the top in Gothic script:

Digger

and across the bottom:

The last man to ever let you down.

One day this past spring I paid a visit to Wunder's to see if Nyhart was still around, but instead I ran into Bob Wells as he made his way from the garage at the very rear of the cemetery to the house at the front. Wells, like Nyhart, is a tall burly man. He has a thick yellow mustache and two corresponding bushes for eyebrows. He has a wide, big-featured face. He moves and talks as slowly as a Southerner, and his hands are thick, like a contractor's. On this day, he wore a T-shirt patterned with holes. Maybe because I'd taken him by surprise there on the grounds, he seemed a little taciturn. Once it became clear that Wells was now in charge, I asked him what had happened to his predecessor. It was a bright day and sunlight raked across the tombstones. Wells loomed there, his expression blank.

"He died."

*

Some three years ago, I soon learned, a heart attack struck Mark Nyhart as he sat watching television in the living room of the Wunder's house. He'd just finished mowing the cemetery's lawn. He was 43 years oldthe same age as Bob Wells when he took over at Wunder's.

Nyhart came from a family of cemetery men. His father, Lee Nyhart, served as the longtime superintendent of Cedar Park Cemetery, in Calumet Park. Family road trips often entailed unscheduled visits to graveyards Lee happened to see along the way. After he retired he became a kind of cemetery consultant, advising the boards of necropolises around the city, including Wunder's. Mark Nyhart's sister, Tina, married Gary Neubeiser, who now manages Concordia, in Forest Park, another Lutheran cemetery and the one into which Digger was eventually let down. His grave is next to his mother's.

Bob Wells, on the other hand, until he undertook the Wunder's job in spring 2005, had no experience with graveyard management. He'd spent his career, instead, in wholesale seafood, most recently as a bookkeeper for Slade Gorton & Company. After the firm laid him off, he applied for the Wunder's vacancy on the recommendation of a friend who worked at First St. Paul's. Grave digging wasn't a profession Wells ever expected to pursue, but he has taken to it. He's an atavist. At one of those rare moments when Wunder's actually has a burialon average, it puts two bodies per month into the groundhe prefers to dig his graves by hand.

*

He's down inside one now, only his head and shoulders visible above the surface. It's 8:30AM on a Tuesday in June, overcast and chilly for the season. A light intermittent rain is falling. Wells' preference to dig by hand seems born of necessity as much as anything else: the cemetery backhoe, an Arps that no one at Wunder's can accurately tell the age of25, 35, 45 years?has been in the shop, on life support. Its time may have come. Among other complications, the controls stuck, and when they stuck, the bucket jerked with a violence that seemed like anger. When last in use it almost decapitated Bob Wells.

And so he digs. Five shovels of assorted types, like a golfer's wedges, are now arrayed around the hole: there's a square-bladed garden edger, two traditional construction spades, and two coal shovels of differing lengths. There's a pair of pruning shears to cut through tree roots. Wells must also compete with the occasional cave-in. The ground here, close to the Lake, is loose with sand. A bus trundling by produces a mini-earthquake and then a mini-landslide, and Wells must scoop out the debris. A conical mound of orange-brown earth rises beside the grave. A vessel the size of a refrigerator box rests beside the mound. Called a vault, it's made of concrete and weighs 1800 pounds. It will soon go into the hole on a homemade contraption (no one knows who built it; it predates Mark Nyhart), a kind of portable hoist with block and tackle dangling from a central aluminum archthe whole assembly on four wheels like a garment rack. With the hoist, the vault will descend into the grave and, later during the funeral, the coffin will go into the vaulta set of Chinese boxes.

The funeral party is scheduled to arrive at the cemetery in several hours. Wells began the excavation on Friday afternoon by marking out the grave's dimensions, three feet by eight, with four stakes connected by string. The birds were singing in the trees as he dug, another reason Wells prefers his own power to that of the backhoe's. "It's more peaceful," he says. He further explains that, because he's engaged in the work of laying a person to rest in the earth, he ought better be close to the earth as well. "And if you do it by hand, you can bring out the music." On Friday afternoon, as he threw shovelfuls of soil over his shoulder, his radio was tuned, as always, to 99FM, a country channel. "I've tried other stuff. Smooth jazz. Rock and roll. But country-and-western fits bestthe feel of it, the heart of the music. Johnny Cash seems to make sense when you're in a graveyard." He keeps a CD of Cash's American V: A Hundred Highways in the garage. His favorite song is "Like the 309." It's the last song Cash ever wrote.

Everybody take a look
See I'm doing fine
Then load my box on the 309.
On the 309, on the 309
Put me in my box on the 309.

Whenever there's a burial, Wells has the help of a 19-year-old neighborhood kid, Dave Bavone, who also does part-time piecemeal work for a cemetery in Lincolnwood. Wells calls Bavone his "associate," and if there's such a thing as a grave-digging apprentice, Bavone is it, though his career might soon go in another direction. He's looking to get into construction.

For now, Bavone remains focused on the procedure for the day's burial. "Bob, are these Muslims or Catholics or Jewish people or what? Because everyone does it different."

"Don't know," Wells says. But he recalls the previous summer, when the cemetery handled a Muslim burial. The participatory funeral rites impressed him. "All the guys grabbed a shovel and started filling in the dirt. We liked that—made our job a lot easier."

Wells also has assistance from the cousin of Valerie Stodden, the superintendent of Wunder's. His name is Bill Law, he's in his late 40s, and he lives on disability after injuring his back at his last paying job—making deliveries for a furniture company. At Wunder's, he says, "I'm a full-time volunteer." He has a healthy paunch and wire-rimmed glasses. Whenever the cemetery has a burial, Law comes by to lend a hand as well as his expertise. Adept with machinery, he likes to tinker about the garage with what equipment Wunder's can afford to maintain—the ancient International Harvester tractor, for instance. Or the Deines Marty-J commercial lawnmower, designed specifically for maneuvering in tight spaces. Or the weed whacker, or the wood chipper. The malfunctioning hydraulics of the backhoe, however, have gone over Law's head. What's not over his head is the 1967 Harley-Davidson SS Sprint, leaning like a museum piece against one wall of the Wunder's garage. For the moment the cycle is inoperable, but when he finds the right parts ("no small task," Law says), he plans to resurrect it.

At the moment, Law is standing at the lip of the grave and sending advice down to Bob Wells in the hole. It goes mostly unheeded. Though he's only helped out around the cemetery for the last few years, Law has a tendency to pontificate on all subjects funereal as if he's worked in the field all his life, and he says now, "Garden State—that really ruined it for us." It's not immediately clear to me what he's talking about, but finally I figure it out: the 2004 Zach Braff picture, in which two supporting characters are gravediggers as well as grave robbers. "If I ever caught a gravedigger doing that, he'd be in the grave. That movie was so tacky it was unbelievable. After it came out, people started hanging around after the burials to make sure we didn't do anything. After that movie, I understood the impact of movies. There's no truth anymore in movies. It infects people's minds."

The plot is situated at the far northeastern corner of the cemetery, right up against the chain-link fence that separates Wunder's from the sidewalk on Irving Park Road. Twenty paces to the south stands the garage, and on the other side of that lies a half-acre section known as Babyland. All the tombstones are flat, and they mark the graves of a thousand small children. "From back in the days when there was a lot of infant mortality," Wells says. Many of them perished in the cholera epidemics of the late nineteenth century. El tracks run just to the east of Wunder's, and Red Line trains rumble by at ten-minute intervals. The car traffic on Irving makes a near-constant hum. There are ambulance sirens and the screams of schoolchildren. When the Cubs play at home, the Wrigley crowd is as audible as if the game were being broadcast from the tombs. The roars of the fans sometimes drown out the eulogies.

Today, pedestrians walk past on the other side of the fence while Bob Wells stands down inside the rectangular cavity, shaving the earthen walls with his edger. By now, it is emphatically a grave-shaped hole in the ground. As pedestrians approach, they look through the chain-link and seem to make the obvious connections—this is a cemetery, that's a hole, and somewhere there's a dead body waiting to go into it. A certain look comes over their faces, confronted here suddenly in the middle of the day by the inexorable fact of death. Spooked is the word that best describes this expression. Some people avert their eyes, as if having walked in on a person in a bathroom. At times in the past, Wells has heard audible gasps. A young woman, sauntering past in office clothes, heels, sees the fresh grave, sees Bob Wells with his decomposing T-shirt and dirt-smeared limbs. She puts her head down and nearly starts into a jog. Other people stop and gaze in silence as the diggers make room for another Wunder's corpse. An elderly couple strolls by. They nod solemnly at Wells as if he were a priest.

*

"It's been dead," Valerie Stodden says, and she immediately regrets the unintended pun. Today's burial is the first at Wunder's in many weeks. Normally, the cemetery has about two per month, but recently it's been much slower than that. People aren't dying. Or, possibly, they're not buying plots at Wunders's to eventually go down into quite as much as they used to. The pricing, anyway, would seem to reflect demand. Space at Wunder's is relatively cheap: a plot will run you between $600 and $1,200, depending on its location. The closer to Clark Street, the more desirable the real estate. At Graceland, by comparison, the corresponding range is $2,600 to $4,000, and at Rosehill Cemetery, the creme-de-le-creme, which is just up the road at Ravenswood and Bryn Mawr, prices can run as high as $7,500. "We don't compete with Graceland," Stodden says. "If someone can't afford a grave there, Graceland will say, 'Well you know. There's a well-kept cemetery across the street.'"

Compared to its northern neighbor, Wunder's is poor. Its trust fund is small and its cash flow, with just 24 or 25 burials a year, a trickle. After a century and a half, its 14 acres, quite small relative to most other Chicago-area cemeteries, has nearly filled up. And as with all mainline Protestant denominations, First St. Paul's congregation—the intended eventual population of Wunder's—has withered from its peak a hundred years ago. None of this adds up to a robust financial statement. Being Lutherans, though, the people at Wunder's know how to survive on thrift.

"There was a national cemetery convention in Las Vegas," Stodden said to me one day in the cemetery office. "So I asked the Wunder's board if I could go. They said, 'Are you kidding?'"

"I was teasing them, of course," she added quickly. "We wouldn't have the money for something like that. We are very careful with how we spend here. I'm more careful of how we spend the cemetery's dollar than I am my own family's."

The cemetery relies heavily on volunteers. There's Bill Law, of course, but also Delayne Pauling, pastor emeritus of First Saint Paul's and president of the Wunder's board, who tends to a series of intricate gardens around the cemetery's entrance. Four First Saint Paul's parishioners take turns assisting Stodden at the office each day, and when big jobs arise, the church community rallies. Recently, strong storms blew in and knocked down ten trees on cemetery grounds. Wunder's couldn't afford to hire a company to clear the debris, so ten church members showed up on a Saturday and did the job in four hours.

There are times, though, when Stodden, along with the Wunder's board of trustees, has been forced to think entrepreneurially. They've considered using the cemetery's winding avenue as a parking lot for Wrigley-goers. They projected earnings of at least $1,000 per game, but jettisoned the idea after some deliberation: "We thought it might jeopardize our tax-exempt status," Stodden says. An alternative revenue source has been charging genealogists for access to the cemetery's archives ($10 to page through the old ledgers) and film production people to shoot on location. In January and again in June, a crew arrived to film scenes for a pilot for a would-be cable series. The show's creators intended to pitch it to Court TV under the working title "Grave Justice." "The way I understand it," says Stodden, "they go to the cemetery to find the grave of someone who died in an unsolved murder. And then the person rises out of the grave to tell the details of his murder. And then the police solve it."

Stodden, a stout woman in her early 60s, has served on the Wunder's board for the last 12 years. She offered to step in as superintendent in January 2004, after her predecessor retired. Though others might have considered it a macabre assignment, Stodden thought differently. "I felt I had the type of personality to help people get through the sad times." She works from nine till noon, Monday through Friday, but longer whenever there's a burial. As with Bob Wells, this is her first experience with cemetery management. A former second-grade schoolteacher, she has also been an editor at McGraw-Hill and a private instructor of bridge. For her services, she billed $60 an hour, a rate befitting her rank of "Life Master," the highest degree in competitive bridge, like a black belt. In a tournament in New York City she once played Omar Sharif. They split the match. She says, "I've been mentioned in the New York Times bridge column—which is to me like the thrill of my life—twice!"

Now, 16 years later, in semi-retirement, she does her best to satisfy the final requests of plot-buyers and the families of the recently deceased. There are, of course, the obligatory needs of Cubs diehards. "We've had quite a few people ask for Section 12 because they want to be as close to Wrigley Field as possible." Wunder's location amid the hustle-and-bustle of the neighborhood has led to other interesting behests. "Someone else wanted Section 7, close to the El, because the person didn't have a car and rode the Red Line their whole life, and wanted to be near the train and hear it after they died. One guy wanted to be near the garage. I think when we were showing him around, he saw Bob and Billy working there, repairing machinery. His son said his father would be with the men in the garage; he'd be there in spirit giving them advice. And then we had a person who wanted his father buried near the Irving Park fence. The son drove on Irving Park Road to work, and he wanted to wave to his father twice everyday, once in the morning and once coming back at night."

*

Waiting for the funeral party to arrive, Bob Wells stands inside the garage, out of the drizzle, and informs me that he has a MySpace page. He has just finished limbing an enormous tree with branches that had overhung the gravesite, and he has changed into a fresh shirt. Off with the soiled T, and on with a khaki short-sleeved button-up that looks vaguely janitorial, tucked into a pair of black work trousers. He has combed his unruly hair into a neat side-parted coif. He's holding a pair of white cotton gloves, like those a butler might use to examine the dusting of a maid, which he will wear (as will Bavone, who's put on an identical khaki shirt) to handle the coffin. He has draped a green carpet of what resembles Astroturf over the earthen mound beside the grave. He has set up three folding chairs for the immediate family. With broom and dustpan, he has swept the vault until its floor is alabaster.

"You have a MySpace page."

"Yeah. You should go check it out. It's got all my odd theological ramblings on it. It's called, 'God Loves Abijah.'"

"God loves . . .?"

"Abijah. From the Old Testament. Not many people know about him. A lot of times in the Old Testament, God blesses the memory or treats a person with honor only if that person gets a decent burial. If a person doesn't get a decent burial, it's considered a curse. So God was upset with Abijah's father, who was King of Israel, Jeroboam, and he was a bad man, and God decided to wipe out the entire family. The deal was there would be a war in Israel. The entire family would be slaughtered, and there would be no people left to give anyone in the family a proper burial, and there'd be a curse. But God saw something good in Abijah. It's not recorded what that was. And so God decided Abijah would get sick and die first, before anyone else, in order that he'd get a decent burial. God loves Abijah. It's one of those paradoxes in the Bible. God loves you so much that He kills you first."

When I look up from my notebook, there's a grin on Wells' face.

*

Wells, no surprise, is a religious man, but he isn't a Lutheran. "I guess you'd call it charismatic," he says of the church to which he belongs, the House of Prayer, on Elston and Addison, which is not part of any denomination.

His own sense of capital-B Belief is among the things that drew Wells to the Wunder's job in the first place (in addition to the wages, of course, and the insurance, and the big rent-free house). "I was looking for a quiet job, something that would allow me to develop my spiritual side, while at work." Under "occupation" on his MySpace page, Wells has entered, "Doorkeeper to another place."

About that place, he says, "What happens to a person after we die? You talk to different religious people and you get different answers. I don't hold onto any strong opinion one way or the other. We can't really know what happens. King Solomon wrote in his book Ecclesiastes that he wasn't sure—do we go up, or do we go down, or what? King Solomon, he wasn't sure, and if he wasn't sure, how can I say what happens to people after they die? The purpose of burying people is to lay their bodies down and lay them to rest—just lay them to rest. Otherwise, the whole cemetery business would be kind of silly, wouldn't it? What would be the point?" When Wells dies, he wants to be cremated.

In the end, he feels his job is "a way to honor people. You do a good grave. You do a good burial, a good funeral, and you're giving that person honor—that they're worth something, that their lives were worth something, even the ones who are forgotten. There's a degree of honor there in taking care of the cemetery." There is something of the steward in Wells, and his words suggest the tradition of the fossor, the grave-digging class of the early Christian period who excavated the galleries in the catacombs of Rome. They were considered members of the minor clergy.

The funeral party has arrived. Around 30 mourners exit their cars and approach the grave and without words assemble in a semi-circle around it. Some are crying. In the coffin is the body of a woman named Amy Friend, "loving companion of Edward Byrnes for 28 years, dear mother of Jason Byrnes," according to her death notice in the Sun-Times. The rain has lightened into a kind of mist. An occasional gust shakes drops from the trees. Wells has already wheeled into place over the grave hole what is called a "lowering device," a mechanism like a bed frame onto which eight pall bearers set the coffin. The coffin is white with silver hardware. Once, last year, a person was buried at Wunder's in a coffin made of cardboard. Its handles were rope. Now, a minister begins to say a few words. He's wearing an orange shirt and an orange necktie. Two Red Line trains rumble over the tracks in opposite directions, forcing the minister to pause. Wells stands off to the side, his hands clasped in front of him, his head bowed. Bill Law and Dave Bavone are off near the garage, out of earshot of the funeral party, talking about the Cubs. Someone in the funeral party releases a dove, and the white bird flaps immediately into the canopy of the tree near the grave, where it stays, concealed totally by leaves. People squint trying to find it. When they can't, they give up and look away. The minister finishes his last prayer and Wells and Bavone in their white gloves crank the lowering device, an ingeniously simple machine of four rods forming a frame in the shape of a rectangle. At each of its corners is a small globe with gears inside. Vinyl straps are stretched taut across the frame; the straps hold the coffin above the hole. As Wells cranks, the frame's two long parallel rods spin in place, and the straps wind out. The coffin descends at a slow, noble pace into the hole. When it reaches bottom, Wells and Law shimmy the straps out from under the casket. (Other richer cemeteries have mechanized lowering devices that require only the flipping of a switch.) The mourners cluster and hug and wipe their eyes with Kleenex. An enormous man with a beard like a biker's appears to be the central figure, possibly the former companion of Amy Friend. Slowly everyone disperses back to their cars. As they walk, some of them look back at the tree branches to see if they can see the dove. When the last car has driven away, Wells and Bavone remove the lowering device and use the hoist to put heavy the concrete lid of the vault in place. It makes no sound when it caps the vault. They pull the Astroturf carpet from off the earthen pile and then they grab their shovels. Wells starts first, using his heel to push the spade into the mound.

Bavone leans on his shovel before starting in on the pile himself. He shakes his head. He says, "You make the hole and then you fill it back in."

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