The Bohemian National Cemetery at Chicago, Illinois, practically has a small forest of tree-stump tombstones. They come in different styles and shapes, and some even in different materials and dot the old part of the cemetery. But, the one that is a surprise and unlike just about any of the others is the tree-stump tombstone of 40-year old Matej Sidlo.
NAR. V KLOUBE OKRES
VODNAN KRAJ PISEK
10 SRPNA 1898
STARI 40 ROKU
ODPOCIVEJ V POKJI
DRAHY MANZELI A OTCE
NAR. 1857 – ZEM 1930
Born at the Kloube District
Vodňan Region, city of PISEK
10 AUGUST 1898
At the age of 40 years
Rest in peace
Dear husband and father
BORN 1857 – DIED 1930
Sidlo and his brother, Jacob, both immigrants from Bohemia had found jobs at a local brewing company—R. Stege Brewing—in Chicago. They were to load their wagon with beer barrels and make deliveries for the company the daylong. And, their day was long. Matej and Jacob left home for work at the crack of dawn—4:45 am to get an early start.
According to newspaper accounts from the time, it was reported that the two men had climbed aboard their wagon, being pulled by two draft horses, and were making a crossing over the railroad tracks at 16th and Morgan, not far from where Matej lived on Morgan and 19th, when a train barreled down the tracks. Jacob spotted the train and was able to jump to safety in time, but the train hit the team and wagon tossing Matej to the pavement. His death certificate tells the story, Matej Sidlo “came to his death from shock and injuries caused by being thrown from a beer wagon hauled by two horses and belonging to the E. R. Stege Brewing Company. Said wagon being struck by engine No. 590 belonging to the CB & Q RR Company.” One newspaper account chalked it up to, “carelessness of railway employees” who were “again to blame for the untimely death of a man in the prime of his life.”
Matej was indeed in the prime of his life. According to the 1910 U.S. Census, Matej or Mike Sidlo was married to Josefa (Josephine) Sidlo, who was also an immigrant from Bohemia. They had six children living at the time: Anz/Ann born June 15, 1881; Joseph born August 29, 1882; Michael born May 6, 1887; James born October 1888; George born March 1893; and John born August 23 1895 . Their 7th child, Wenzel/Wenci, died as an infant.
Matej’s tree-stump tombstone, carved from limestone, was a part of the rustic movement of the mid-nineteenth century which was characterized by designs that were made to look like they were from the country. The gravestones were purposefully designed to look like trees that had been cut and left in the cemetery which was part of the movement to build cemeteries to look like parks. In funerary art, the tree-stump tombstones were varied—the stonecutters displayed a wide variety of carving that often reflected individual tastes and interests of the persons memorialized.
The tree-stump gravestones themselves were imbued with symbolism. The short tree stump usually marks the grave of a person who died young—a life that had been “cut” short. In this example, Matej is just 40 years old. Twining up the face of the gravestone is ivy, a symbol associated with immortality and fidelity. Just below the place where the names are carved into the stone is a pair of clasping hands, a symbol of matrimony.
But what is different is the bas-relief on the front that displays the scene of his death. It shows the train engine, billowing smoke from its smokestack, barreling into the wagon with the beer kegs flying into the air.