This is an extended version of our interview with Matt Hucke that we featured in the August 2010 issue of the Legends and Lore of Illinois. Download the entire issue by clicking here.
Matt Hucke is the webmaster of Graveyards.com, one of the oldest and most well-known cemetery sites on the Internet. He is also co-author (along with Ursula Bielski) of the book “Graveyards of Chicago.”
Where does your fascination with cemeteries come from? How many have you visited?
It began as a fascination with ghosts.
As far back as I can recall, I’ve been interested in ghosts. It began when I was about ten years old, when stories about hauntings would appear on TV shows like “That’s Incredible!” At first, these frightened me to the extent that I’d leave the room until the segment was over – but as time grew on, I became more curious, would peek at the TV from around the door frame. And eventually I grew to relish the feeling of fear; I’d eagerly await televised ghost stories.
I read all the ghost books I could get my hands on. First, there was the occasional ghost story in Cricket magazine; later, I moved on to non-fiction ghost books by Daniel Cohen and Richard Winer. I was about twelve or thirteen when I read “the Amityville Horror”, which terrified me, but I kept returning to it, unable to look away. I discovered H.P. Lovecraft at about the same time, and was then forever hooked on tales of supernatural terror.
I entered university in 1990, and received my first Usenet account – Usenet is a distributed message board service that is largely forgotten now, but was once the Internet’s most popular discussion forum. Within a few years, “alt.folklore.ghost-stories” had become my favourite newsgroup; I was reading and discussing ghost stories there almost every day.
In 1993 I moved to Chicago. I was immediately fascinated with the action and energy and history of the city, and set out to explore it. One of the guidebooks I’d purchased named Graceland Cemetery as one of the city’s top ten sights, so I visited it within a few months after moving here. I was impressed, to say the least. Exploring Graceland without a map, wandering through it randomly, I found the statue of Inez Clarke by accident – I’d never seen a monument so beautiful.
My visit to Graceland, however, did not lead to further cemetery exploration, as I was occupied with school and work. It wasn’t until almost two years later that I set foot in a graveyard again. During this time I’d been reading plenty of ghost stories, in alt.folklore.ghost-stories and various books, and learned that I was just an hour or two away from a location that’s generally considered one of the most haunted places in the world: Bachelor’s Grove. I realized that I could finally visit a place just like those I’d been reading about my whole life: a genuine haunted place.
The night before my trip to Bachelor’s Grove, I was so excited I got very little sleep. Having never seen photos of it, I imagined a large, abandoned cemetery, surrounded by woods or stone walls, with huge, decrepit monuments and mausolea. At the centre, perhaps a quiescent, long-dead fountain. The air would be perfectly still, with no birds or squirrels to mar the silence and desolation.
I thought I was certain to encounter something supernatural, and spent half the night wondering whether I’d be able to keep my composure and communicate with it, or would flee in terror. The next morning, I borrowed my roommate’s camera and set out. From the extreme north of the city to a far southwest suburb, the trip took about ninety minutes, and my anticipation grew – I knew, this was the day I would finally experience a ghost!
Bachelor’s Grove turned out to be a massive disappointment. It looked *nothing* like what I’d imagined, it was far smaller than I expected, and there were only a few dozen monuments, none of them particularly interesting. I stayed about an hour, during which nothing even remotely supernatural happened. In my head, I’d built it up as a beautiful, decrepit, fantastic place, but in reality it was just tiny, broken and sad.
A few months later, looking for a quiet place to read, I drove through Rosehill, and immediately loved it. I had no idea that there was another Chicago cemetery of the same quality as Graceland; it even had a monument of a girl in a glass box, just like Inez. I immediately decided that I was going to start exploring graveyards regularly. Weeks later, I was back in Graceland, where I finished the roll of film that I’d begun at Bachelor’s Grove, and started another (taking almost *twenty* photos in one day was something of a novelty for me then). I explored Wunder’s, and Jewish Graceland, and Rosehill again, and Evanston’s Calvary, and then the famous Resurrection in the southwest suburbs. In 1996 and 1997, I was going out to explore a new graveyard almost every weekend. I didn’t even keep a list of where I’d been at first; I’d just put the photos into one of several albums, marked north, south, or west.
Now, I rely on a database to record which cemeteries I’ve visited. Into it I’ve loaded the US Geological Survey’s list of cemeteries, with latitude and longitude, and I use this to find locations I haven’t yet seen. At present, I’ve explored and photographed nine hundred eighty-five cemeteries, independent mausolea, or churches with burials. These range in size from single isolated graves, like that of the first president of the University of Illinois, to huge cemeteries covering hundreds of acres, such as Rosehill and Oak Ridge.
Your website, Graveyards.com, was one of the first of its kind on the Internet. What prompted you to create the site, and did you ever think it would become as successful as it has?
At about the same time as I started seriously exploring graveyards in 1995-96, I began working at a small Internet service provider, now defunct, as sysadmin and programmer. I discovered a web site called “City of the Silent”, with dozens of articles about cemetery culture and history, beautiful photos, and pages of links to other cemetery web sites, each with a brief review and a rating of 1 to 4 “stones”. Seeing these, I thought I should do the same, as a way to show off the photos I’d been collecting for the past few months.
Although I’d never built a web site, I administered servers that hosted hundreds of them, so I knew how they worked, and I was familiar with the basics of HTML just from helping the ISP’s customers edit their sites. I tried three or four domain names until discovering that “graveyards.com” was available. I registered the domain, configured it as a new site on one of my employer’s servers, and began scanning photos using the office’s scanner. Within a week or two, I launched the site, featuring about 5-10 photos each of Graceland, Rosehill, Bachelor’s Grove and a few others, and submitted it to “City of the Silent” for review – it was immediately awarded the coveted “Four Stone” rating.
Graveyards.com is now over a hundred times the size it was in 1996, and I add content when I can find the time. I sometimes meet people, both in my private life and my professional life, who were regular readers of the site. I am often amazed at how much attention it’s gotten – it’s a thrill to be in a bookshop, find a new book about ghosts or Chicago history, and discover my name in the bibliography or end notes.
Your work on Graveyards.com led to a book co-authored with Ursula Bielski, who has written extensively about Chicagoland ghost lore, in 1999. Are you also interested in ghosts and the paranormal, or do you feel that your interest is purely Taphophilia (a love of cemeteries)?
It was a love of ghost stories that drew me to graveyards in the first place, but in recent years this has become much less of a factor. I’ve been to most of the allegedly haunted graveyards in Illinois without experiencing anything, and I find that the legends are often tediously similar from one location to the next. Now, my interest is in the history, art and architecture of the cemeteries – an ornate mausoleum, a unique monument, or a visually appealing grouping of monuments, or just the way a monument has weathered, is more interesting to me than any unsubstantiated story about mysterious orbs of light.
One thing I like about graveyards is that they’re a place where everyone can express their individuality, within the limits of their budget. In the modern world people are generally expected to be consumers of culture, rather than producers; many people don’t have much of an identity beyond what TV shows they watch or what sports team they support. Cemeteries are places of self-expression and individualism – a person might choose a towering obelisk, a beautiful angel, a statue of themself, a massive granite monolith, a simple flat marker, or something truly unique. Nowhere else is an ordinary person expected to create art – or at least pay someone to create art on your behalf – and leave it where it will remain undisturbed for a century.
By documenting and preserving the art through which people memorialized themselves and their loved ones, I honour their memory, and provide enjoyment for others who appreciate the mourning aesthetic.
What do you think of the relationship between cemeteries and paranormal investigation? Do you think it is a legitimate interest, or does it bring too much negative attention?
A ghost story can add interest and an aura of mystery to an otherwise ordinary graveyard, and I appreciate those investigators who have researched and documented these sites.
But I think there are also “investigators” who aren’t adding anything to our knowledge, either of cemeteries or the paranormal – I’ll call them “ghost tourists”. They watch shows like “Ghost Hunters” on television and say “I can do that!”. Rather than researching the history of a site and trying to discover whether there’s any basis for the legends, they’ll simply go out there in the middle of the night and take lots of pictures, at least a few of which will have something blurry and ill-defined that will then be trumpeted as a ghost. They mean well, but by doing this they attract attention – and vandals – to sites that were never really haunted in the first place.
I think that most of the supposedly haunted graveyards in Illinois have never had any legitimate phenomena. It seems that in every county, there’s one or two cemeteries that get a reputation of being haunted, just because they have a spooky name or are isolated at the end of a long road through the woods. Young people go out there at night to drink and fuck and tell scary stories, and next thing you know somebody’s taking the story seriously and showing up with night-vision goggles and EMF detectors.
What are some of the projects you have going on right now? How do you think Graveyards.com will evolve in the future?
Graveyards.com hasn’t changed much in recent years, mainly because I lack the time to improve it. As a professional web developer, after working on my clients’ sites all day, the last thing I want to do is work on another web site, even my own! This means that it goes months between updates, other than the adding of a few photos of locations I’ve recently explored.
I’ve given much thought to opening up the site completely to the public – building tools with which anyone can upload photos, which would be visible immediately, or visible after a quick quality control stage. But that’s a large project, and I just can’t take on more programming work just now.
Instead, I’ve been researching and writing a book, Graveyards of Illinois, which I hope to publish in about three years. I’ve visited most of the major cities in Illinois, exploring the better-known cemeteries in each, as well as targeting historically significant cemeteries throughout the state. In early summer this year, I made a week-long trip to southern Illinois, exploring a mausoleum atop the bluffs in Monroe County, the cemetery associated with a phantom funeral procession in Randolph county, the graves of murder victims and Klansmen in “bloody” Williamson County, a decrepit and soon-to-be-demolished community mausoleum in Saline county, and lots of other wonderful sites. I’m now planning a week-long trip for this autumn, researching target locations.
I read as much Illinois history as I can find, and I often discover monuments of historical significance in the most unexpected places – for example, just this month I found a book that relates a tale of a murder in southern Illinois, where the victim received a beautiful gravestone erected with funds raised by public subscription. It happened in a town that I drove past two years ago without stopping, but where now I plan to return. There are artists, generals, politicians, famous humanitarians and activists whose graves I have recently learned about, and thus the map of Illinois on my wall still has twenty or thirty pushpins marking graveyards I want to visit, photograph, study and write about.
The more I learn about graveyards, the more fascinated I am with them. The art, the history, the ghost stories, and the way people express their individualism through memorialization all appeal to me. Every graveyard, no matter how small or plain, is full of fascinating people and stories, and I hope to do my part to preserve these for the future.
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