A Tale of Two Tombs

People go into politics for different reasons. It could be to do good, or to exercise power, or to get rich, or any combination of the above, or maybe something entirely different. However, there is one motivation which—of necessity–drives nearly every politician.

They want to be famous. And that doesn’t stop when death intrudes.

Consider two Chicago politicians, separated by over a century, but united in their desire to be remembered.

John Wentworth came to Chicago as a 21-year-old in 1836. Nicknamed “Long John” because he was 6-foot-6, he carried on a law practice, speculated in real estate, and published a newspaper. His political resume included twelve years in the U.S. House of Representatives and two terms as Mayor of Chicago.

Long John's obelisk

Long John’s obelisk

In 1886 he began building his tomb in Rosehill Cemetery. At a cost of $38,000 Wentworth had a 50-ton granite obelisk fashioned in New Hampshire, then hauled to Chicago by train, boat, and wagon. When it was set on its base over the gravesite, the pillar was 72 feet high, taller than anything else on the property.

Wentworth gave instructions that nothing be inscribed on the obelisk or its base—not even his name. When asked for an explanation, he said: “People will ask whose monument it is. When informed it is John Wentworth’s monument, they will ransack old records and visit libraries to find out who John Wentworth was. When they find out, they will remember.”

Wentworth died in 1888. His heirs put his name on the monument, anyway.

Roland Burris was born in 1937 in downstate Centralia. As an African American growing up in the mid-20th Century, he overcame many obstacles, becoming a successful commercial lawyer. He was elected to three terms as Illinois Comptroller and a single term as state Attorney General. In December 2008 Burris was appointed to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Obama. He served in that office for just under two years.

Senator Burris recently celebrated his 78th birthday. Like John Wentworth, he has paid careful attention to his final resting place. Unlike Long John, Burris has rejected the minimalist approach.

Burris Tomb

Burris Tomb

The Burris Tomb is located in the northwest section of Oak Woods Cemetery, prominently sited at the junction of two driveways. On the central granite slab, under the heading “Trail Blazer,” we are told that Burris was the first African American in Illinois to serve as Comptroller, the first to serve as Attorney General, the first to be an SIU exchange student to Hamburg University in Germany, the first to be a national bank examiner, the first to be President of the National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers, and Treasurers . . . and so on.

The two side panels list Burris’s other “Major Accomplishments,” such as Vice-Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. As of now, there’s no mention of the U.S. Senate.

John Wentworth wanted to be remembered, and could trust in the curiosity of future generations. In our time Roland Burris has had to spell everything out.

Somewhere in these companion stories, there’s the seed of a scholarly monograph on the decline of American education.



1 Response to “A Tale of Two Tombs”

  1. 1 Garry September 8, 2015 at 10:53 am

    Blaming a decline in education is wrong in this case.
    Wentworth was having a bit of fun & undoubtedly knew his family would put his name there. I see it all the time from the train & can even see it from Peterson Ave. in the winter. I was in Rosehill for a tour & we went right up to it. It’s a classic shape from the time of the pharaohs & of course echoes the Washington Monument.

    As for Burris, he’s a little man, little in the sense of his own worth & his complete lack of self worth has caused him to create that monstrosity of a tomb. No one will ever name a street after him & he’ll be forgotten, except by those who go to see his tomb & laugh at him for building it.

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