If you shopped at the Book Fair up between, oh, 1998 and 2008, and wandered into the Chicago section, chances are you encountered Helen “The Cemetery Lady” Sclair, expert on Chicago history, the culture of mourning, the death care industry, and all other matter pertaining to our demise and its earthly aftermath.
If you didn’t, I am feeling sorry for you. Because Helen suddenly moved on to research the matter from another angle, and is probably now having a long chat with Richard J. Daley, or the author of the gravestone verse “A precious one from us is gone”, whom she was never able to track down while she lived.
So you will never be hailed with “What is your interest in Chicago, miss?” or “What is your ethnicity, young man?” (The ethnic variations in funerary and burial practices fascinated Helen, and led her to investigate the matter with any acquaintance. This brought her a certain respect among more than a dozen of Chicago’s remaining ethnic neighborhoods, an insight into the different worlds which still exist in our melting pot, and proposals of marriage from several cab drivers.)
Never more will you be ordered away from the Collectibles section for carrying flowers (don’t drip on the books, sir!) nor will you be told that the fifty dollar book you just picked up is worthless from a research standpoint. (Helen was rigid in her disapproval of books which she felt exhibited insufficient or shoddy research. She always preferred to sell you a good book for five dollars rather than a bad one for fifty. I tried to talk her out of all this integrity to no avail.)
No longer are you likely to walk into Collectibles and hear someone burst into full-bodied song. (She was supposed to study opera under Ernestine Schumann-Heink after college, but circumstances prevented it.) No more will you find someone who will engage you in conversation on the least-impressive celebrity tombstones in Graceland or the perfidy of elected officials (any elected official would do) or the shame of lax regulation of cemeteries in Illinois. (She felt no gratification when the scandal at Burr Oak proved her correct. She felt sorry for the families of the deceased and sorrier for the families of people in other cemeteries which were doing similar, if not worse, things.)
It is always a pang when one of your best friends passes beyond the rose. But I find myself feeling sorriest for the people Helen will now not meet, instruct, and entertain. “A precious one from us is gone, a voice we loved is stilled; a place is vacant in our home which never can be filled.”