Chicago’s Smallest Cemetery

The smallest cemetery in the City of Chicago measures little more than 100 square feet and is located in the middle of a scrapyard off Ewing Avenue.  It has one permanent resident, Andreas von Zirngibl.

Zirngibl was born in Bavaria in 1797.  At 18 he was a soldier in the Prussian army that helped beat Napoleon at Waterloo, though he came out of the battle with only one arm.  He then returned to Bavaria to work as a fisherman and start a family.

In 1854 Zirngibl arrived in Chicago with his wife and five children.  He bought a 40-acre parcel of land south of the city, near the mouth of the Calumet River, for $160 in gold, and resumed his fishing.  But after less than a year in his new home, Andreas caught a fever.  He died on August 21, 1855.

Andreas von Zirngibl's grave

Andreas von Zirngibl’s grave

According to his family, the old soldier’s last wish was to be buried on his homestead.  He was laid to rest beneath a wooden cross, the gravesite enclosed by a white picket fence.  Even though the Zirngibls soon moved out of the neighborhood, they made regular visits to tend the grave.

Meanwhile, urban growth spread to the mouth of the Calumet.  By the early 1880s the property was in the hands of the Calumet & Chicago Canal and Dock Company.  The Zirngibl family brought suit to reclaim the land where Andreas was buried.

The case had one major complication—the Great Fire of 1871 had destroyed many of the city’s property records.  The Zirngibl family said that their deed must have been lost in the fire.  The canal company said that Andreas had been a squatter, with no legal title to the land.

In 1895 the Illinois Supreme Court decided that the canal company owned the land.  In explaining his decision, the judge noted that the Zirngibls had never made a claim on the property, until it became valuable.  Still, he ruled that Andreas should remain where he was, and that his family be given free access to visit him.

The gravesite today

The gravesite today

The years have passed.  Various industrial operations have come and gone in the property off Ewing Avenue.  Every so often the story of the cemetery in the scrapyard attracts the attention of the media.  Even Mike Royko wrote about it.

In 1987 the Southeast Historical Society and the Zirngibl family raised money to restore the gravesite.  The white picket fence had not been sturdy enough to resist careless workers going about their everyday labor. Today Andreas rests under a concrete slab surrounded by seven large concrete blocks.  A granite headstone identifies him, though it has the wrong year for the Battle of Waterloo.

Chicago’s one-man cemetery is located off East 93rd Court, at approximately 9331 South Ewing Avenue.  Since this is private property and an active scrapyard, access is limited—unless you are a descendant of Andreas von Zirngibl.

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4 Responses to “Chicago’s Smallest Cemetery”


  1. 1 Garry November 18, 2014 at 10:37 am

    There’s also the Couch family tomb in Lincoln Park, behind the historical society.
    Another weird cemetery is the Russell family one in Northfield, near Willow & Waukegan Roads. It can’t be more than 300 sq. ft. Kraft Foods built its HQ next to it. It’s adjacent to an outside stairway & surrounded by bushes & trees. There are a number of Kraft employees that refuse to use those stairs.
    Apparently the Russell’s either sold or gave the farm to the Catholic Church, which then kept it going as a farm until the 1990s, when they leased the land to Kraft, requiring them to keep the cemetery there.
    I did take photos several years ago, but they’re buried [no pun intended], somewhere in my computer.


  1. 1 Smallest Cemetery In Chicago!; Do You Know Where It Is? It Even Connects Back To Napoleon! | Tony's Genealogy Blog at the Schaumburg Township District Library Trackback on June 10, 2015 at 1:06 pm

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