October marks that time of the year when we dress up as ghouls and goblins, decorate our homes with spiderwebs and skeletons, and indulge in all manner of frightening things. As a nod to these spine-chilling 31 days, the IDHH is featuring the fascinating use and art of tombstones and other grave markers. As diverse as the great variety of funerary traditions around the world, grave markers serve not only the utilitarian purpose of demarcating the physical space where an individual might lie, but also reflect the social values and traditions of a specific period or people. Cemeteries and other burial places held great significance from the earliest days, as providing a place for the dead was thought to be an important family obligation. This significance would eventually extend to larger communal graveyards and burial places as inclusion in these spaces became exclusive to community members, often excluding foreigners, criminals, and other unwanted groups.
The tombstones and grave markers within these communal spaces have communicated a number of ideas to visitors over time. As a work of art, the craftsmanship and skill in the construction of the tombstones can be an aesthetic pleasure in its own right. Such artistry leads people to create gravestone rubbings with charcoal and to capture graveyard scenes through painting and photography. The construction and grandiosity of these markers may also impart a sense of prestige or wealth, such as in the image below of Carrie Eliza Getty’s large tomb in Chicago. Of course, tombstones also act as a memorial to previous generations, prompting us to seek out the histories of those buried there, like of the Mabie family and their influential 1840s circus show in Wisconsin. Whether viewed as art, icon, or historical marker, tombstones offer a (spooky) glimpse into the values and customs of those who are no longer with us.
Here are a few of our favorite items featuring tombstones from across the Midwest:
This second week of October marks the close of Hispanic Heritage Month in the United States. The national observance was established as Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968 and then extended in 1988 to cover an entire month from September 15th to October 15th. Hispanic Heritage Month seeks to celebrate the histories, cultures, and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. To highlight just one of the many varied groups celebrated in Hispanic Heritage Month, the IDHH is featuring the Puerto Rican Cultural Center Collection and the Luis V. Gutiérrez Congressional Archives.
The Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center (PRCC) is a non-profit organization established in 1973 by the Puerto Rican and Latina/o community in Chicago to address both the social and cultural needs of the community. Currently located in the Humboldt Park neighborhood on the West side of Chicago, the Center is a community landmark on the historic section of Division Street known as Paseo Boricua (“Boricua [Puerto Rican] Promenade”). Acting as a community center, political organizing space, and cultural hub, the PRCC hosts educational workshops, publishes the bilingual community newspaper La Voz del Paseo Boricua, and partners with a number of affiliated organizations in the community.
Luis Vicente Gutiérrez is an American politician of Puerto Rican descent who was active in local Chicago politics as well as the U.S. House of Representatives. The first Hispanic Representative from Illinois, Gutiérrez first served as an alderman on the Chicago City Council from 1986 to 1993 before being elected as a Representative for Illinois in 1992. In addition to advocating for workers’ rights and LGBTQ+ rights throughout his political service, Gutierrez was also a steadfast champion of Puerto Rican independence. He protested the United States military use of the island as a bomb testing ground in the early 2000s and human rights abuses occurring on the island against University of Puerto Rico students in 2011.
The work of the Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center and of Luis Vicente Gutiérrez reflect the vibrant culture, community, and impact of Puerto Ricans in the United States. Here are a few of our favorite items from these collections: