Saturday, December 10, 2011

Helen Sclair

Here is Helen Sclair (1st image, a screen grab from a 2008 interview on WTTW Chicago), here (2nd image) is a close-up of her grave marker, and here is the photograph I would have preferred to use. "The Cemetery Lady" (1930-2010) was a hero of the group Loren Rhoads and I belong to - the Association for Gravestone Studies - although I never had the pleasure of meeting her. The well-known cemetery historian held seminars, led tours, and wrote columns to promote the fact that burial grounds are valuable places, rich with art and history. Her fascination with cemeteries dated to her childhood: her Mom died shortly after her birth and she told Studs Terkel that "the first thing my foster family did was take me to visit my mother's grave down in southern Illinois." After a career as a schoolteacher, Helen became known as an advocate of the dead. “People seem to be somewhat afraid of death,” she said, “But if you look closely you'd be amazed at what you'll find in cemeteries. You step back in time and you cross oceans.” Her research at Northeastern Illinois University illuminated Chicago's early years, sharpening knowledge of immigration patterns and leading her to believe that old bones remain buried beneath Lincoln Park. Helen's own cremated remains are interred in Chicago's Bohemian National Cemetery, not far from where she had lived since 2001 in the caretaker's cottage. “It's been wonderful. I live with death on a daily basis.” Like me, she resided in a "museum" of her own making, with coffins in the dining room (one from the 1940s fit for a baby, a wicker model from the 1920s, and a Civil War-era pine casket), a copper-lined burial vault in her living room, and morbid masks on her walls (a death mask from notorious Chicago bank robber John Dillinger and paraphernalia from the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration). The latest issue of the AGS publication Markers details some of her quirks and more of her treasures: a funeral home guestbook stand, casket catalogs, cemetery postcards, memorial cares, a teacup from Princess Charlotte's funeral in 1817, a handkerchief from the 1910 funeral of King Edward VII, and a misspelled cemetery sign. As her obituary writers noted last year, her address remains unchanged. Rest in peace, Helen!

1 comment:

  1. That's lovely. I wish I'd had the chance to know her better.


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