Gravestones sink while Des Plaines River rises

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's a very, very difficult cemetery to maintain," said Irwin Lapping, vice president of Waldheim Cemetery Co., which manages about 85 percent of the area. "We underwent a physical renovation that improved much of the cemetery. But still there's a great deal to do."

Lapping's firm maintains about 170,000 graves at the cemetery. Silverman & Weiss Cemetery, a smaller business, handles the remaining graves—at least 26,000—including the section near the Des Plaines River that sometimes floods.

"I have no idea how [the flooding] would be resolved," said Steve Schwitzman, owner of Silverman & Weiss. "You can't really build up the land because there are graves there. You'd have to take out every single headstone, monument and redo the land and then put everything back where it's supposed to be. It would be almost impossible."

Monica Karbin, whose parents are buried in the section near the river, calls that response unacceptable and thinks Silverman & Weiss should invest in a drainage system to prevent flooding.

"How disgusting, how degrading and how disrespectful to the dead, to the people you love, to be underwater," she said. "It's senseless. Why should my mom be sinking?"

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."

In the 1940s, as Jewish immigrants migrated to suburbs and early synagogues closed or merged, Waldheim became severely neglected. Lapping got 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.

Major restoration
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.

"We're like an old neighborhood," Lapping said. "It had its heyday. Then, it went down. So, it needed to be gentrified and renewed."

Both caretakers struggle with two costly maintenance issues: tipping monuments and caring for older graves with no family left. Lapping said the monuments are the largest expense. Last year, for example, Waldheim spent $17,000 renovating more than 800 monuments, he said.

Even so, one disturbing section contains dozens of cracked tombstones that look like they were bulldozed from another area. Here is where Getzberg's stone lies among brush and yard waste. Both caretakers deny the stones are theirs.

Schwitzman said he is limited in what he can repair because his company lacks the equipment to lift larger stones. Rising gas prices have affected cemetery upkeep as the cost of lawn care soars. And some Jewish organizations still own cemetery land and are failing to pay for upkeep, he said.

"The organizations owe us so much money. But we're not going to let the cemetery go. We care about how it looks. Even though I don't get paid for cutting the grass, and even though the price of gas now is high, we still do it anyway," he said.

Schwitzman bears the extra burden of maintaining the section on Roosevelt Road that periodically floods. He thinks the problem may have been exacerbated by excavations required to build a nursing home beside the cemetery.

The company discussed possible remedies for the flooding with Forest Park officials, he said, but was told it could not pump flood water back into the river or into the sewer system because of the potential for disease.

Schwitzman said his firm no longer sells graves in that section. However, some burials still occur there, as it is one of the sections that early Jewish immigrants designated for needy families.

"I don't think they decided this when it was flooding," he said. "If they knew the area was going to be flooding, I don't think it would have been used for the graves."

Emily Soloff, executive director of the American Jewish Committee's Chicago chapter, said flooding in a Jewish cemetery is a serious issue because the wooden coffins raise the possibility that bodies could be disinterred.

No central authority
"It's a challenging question because there isn't an overarching cemetery authority in the Jewish community," she said.

When Karbin's mother died in 1995, family members had little money, so they went to Lloyd Mandel Levayah funeral home in Skokie and asked for financial assistance.

The funeral home contacted Silverman and Weiss to request a public aid burial and was given a plot where the Karbins could be buried next to each other. Her father died in 2003.

"It's an unfortunate situation that flooding does happen," said Doran Puckett, the funeral home director. "But these cemeteries date back to the time of the Civil War. When it floods, it floods. Stuff like that is an act of God."

Solutions elsewhere
Puckett said other cemeteries in the Chicago area also have flooding issues but some have found solutions. At Shalom Memorial Park in Arlington Heights, for example, water pumps keep the graves dry, he said.

In recent years the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago has spent weekends sprucing up Jewish cemeteries that have fallen into disrepair, but only when asked by the Illinois attorney general's office, federation spokeswoman Linda Haase said.

Karbin said she was not told the section where her parents were buried was susceptible to flooding. She said she has gotten two letters from Silverman and Weiss saying her mother's stone was sinking and requesting $45 to correct it. She has refused to pay.

"Even if it only floods one week a year, that's too many," she said.

"My parents took care of me, so now it's my turn to take care of them."

(Source: Chicago Tribune)

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  1. Thank you for making me aware of this horrible situation. Is JewishGen organizing a project to help maintain the gravestones?


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