A BRIEF HISTORY of THE BOHEMIAN NATIONAL CEMETERY
The Bohemian National Cemetery of Chicago was founded in 1877 as a result of a Catholic priest denying burial in the Bohemian-Polish Catholic cemetery to those he disliked. The refusal to allow the burial of Marie Silhanek who died on July 25, 1876 taxed the patience of the Bohemian people to the breaking point. The movement grew rapidly lead by Mr. Frank Zdrubek, editor of the Bohemian daily “Svornost” who gave lectures under the auspices of the Bohemian Freethinker’s Society.
At a lecture on January 21, 1877 a committee was elected and instructed to ask all Bohemian societies of Chicago to send a delegate to a February 12 meeting. It was at this latter meeting that the decision was made that all societies should found the cemetery and hold it in common as a national property.
The organization proceeded to raise funds and obtain a suitable location for the cemetery. The land purchased was in the Township of Jefferson, and the first burial was the child of Charles Brada on July 1, 1877. This was the “FIRST” Public Burial Charles Brada: http://i375.photobucket.com/albums/oo195/Robert_Peck_Shaw/BNC/brada_zpsnurfmiyd.jpg The second burial was on August 7, and that was of Anna, daughter of John Bican. The Township of Jefferson brought legal action, and on October 16, Judge Williams ruled the cemetery Association could continue burials in the cemetery. Because of the expansion of the city, by 1892 the cemetery was within the Chicago city limits.
The celebration of the official opening of the Bohemian National Cemetery was held on September 2, 1877. The first public funeral was held on November 1, 1877.
The cemetery started with 50 acres and expanded several times reaching an area of 124 acres. The cemetery covered the land from Foster Avenue to Bryn Mawr and Pulaski to Central Park or the Northeastern Illinois University. In 2000 the cemetery sold a 2 acre crescent shaped area between the North Branch of the Chicago River and Foster Avenue to a Land Trust which deeded it to the Chicago Park District as that land will be part of the Grand Illinois Trail.
The Association proceeded to construct a Gothic style Gate-House, an Office Building and a Crematorium. In 1959 the Association built the Masaryk Memorial Mausoleum, and then added Eduard Benes and a Milan Stefanek wing. Until the 1980’s the cemetery had several large greenhouses attached to the office building.
The charter of the cemetery association required the cemetery to support Bohemian educational and cultural endeavors. The Association supported Bohemian schools throughout the Chicago area and in 1893 it established an orphanage and old people’s home which was known as The Bohemian Home for the Aged. In 1992 that facility moved to Naperville Illinois and is known as Tabor Hills Healthcare Center and Retirement Community. The Cemetery Association is on record as waiving burial expenses of those unable to pay. The Cemetery Association also provided funds for widows and families in need.
Two notable events occurred in which the Bohemian National Cemetery became involved. The first was on July 24, 1915 when the excursion ship Eastland capsized in the Chicago River with the loss of 844 lives. The passengers were employees of the Western Electric Company and many of them Bohemian. The 143 victims buried in Bohemian National Cemetery is the largest number in any cemetery. The second event was the assassination of Mayor Anton Cermak in 1933 when he was in a motorcade seated beside President Franklin Roosevelt. The Cermak mausoleum in Section 21 to this day is visited by people from throughout the United States as well as the Czech Republic.
Excellent histories of the Bohemian National Cemetery can be found in “Semi-Centennial Jubilee of the Bohemian National Cemetery Association in Chicago, Illinois” by Dr. J. E. Vojan, and “The CENTENNIAL of the BOHEMIAN NATIONAL CEMETERY ASSOCIATION of CHICAGO, Illinois” by James Krakora. There are numerous other books about the cemetery written in the Czech language.