Roger Ahlgrim has nothing but respect for his profession. In the early 1900s his grandfather ran a storefront funeral parlor on the south side of Chicago, and in 1956 his father moved the business to Elmhurst. Ahlgrim and his two brothers followed in their father's footsteps, and Ahlgrim & Sons opened four more branches--in Schaumburg, Streamwood, Lake Zurich, and Palatine. Ahlgrim is chief funeral director at the Palatine branch, a job that requires a certain amount of sobriety and decorum. But all that dissolves when he heads down to the basement of the building to play miniature golf.
His clients, weeping over their loved ones on the first floor, may not realize that just below them lies a nine-hole golf course. The first hole features a skull with blinking red eyes, stolen from the Chicago mortuary school that Ahlgrim attended almost 40 years ago. "We used those to learn how to reconstruct a person's face," he explains. "They were replaced by steel skulls during the 80s, and I think I have one of the last wood ones in existence." The coffin that serves as an obstacle for the second hole was once used for shipping bodies by rail. "Those things were heavy. A real backbreaker."
The third hole forces players to putt through a castle equipped with a guillotine. The seventh hole, by far the most difficult in the course, is decorated with a mausoleum and tiny tombstones built by Ahlgrim's daughter-in-law, each bearing the name of someone who worked for the firm in the past century. There's a stroke penalty for entering the cemetery or disturbing a grave. Among the other hazards are haunted houses, cryptoriums, and water traps inhabited by plastic snakes and alligators. The entire basement is decorated with bats, spiderwebs, and nooses, and speakers pipe in howling cats and distant thunder.
Ahlgrim came up with the idea in 1964 and built the course with the help of an employee. "I always loved miniature golf," he says. "Even when I was in the military, the guys and I would go out and play miniature golf all the time. I thought it would be fun to have my own course someday. When I bought the space in Palatine and noticed that we had a lot of extra room in the basement, I decided to give it a shot. But it was only supposed to be for me and the kids."
His two sons invited their friends over to play golf for birthday parties and Cub Scout events, and word began to spread. By summer 1966 the course had become one of the most popular teen hangouts in town. Ahlgrim was concerned at first. "We never knew how people would react," he says. "When parents started to hear about what was happening over here, I was worried that some of them might not think it was appropriate."
He needn't have worried--most of them wanted to play too. The basement of Ahlgrim & Sons, dubbed "Ahlgrim's Acres" by the locals, came to be frequented by the Shriners, the Kiwanis, the Lions Club, and Rotary International. Both children and adults continue to patronize it for birthday celebrations. "We've had a lot of surprise birthday parties," Ahlgrim says. "They don't tell people where they're going. When they show up, they get so scared, until we take them down to the basement."
As the course's reputation grew, Ahlgrim began to add attractions to the basement, transforming it into a fun house. He bought a haunted-house pinball machine and 11 vintage video games, including Monster Bash, Lunar Lander, Mario Brothers, and Space Invaders. In the past decade he's installed a foosball table (which he personally constructed), a shuffleboard court, table hockey, Ping-Pong, and bumper pool. Nowadays, Ahlgrim's Acres attracts visitors from across the Chicago area. Ahlgrim claims that it's often booked months ahead of time and estimates that over 200 rounds of golf are played every month.
The course's notoriety has brought Ahlgrim exposure in the national press; the basement's walls are covered with clippings from Golf Digest, Sports Illustrated, Business Week, and the National Inquirer. "I've heard them all," he says, pointing out headlines like "Dead Man Golfing" and "May You Putt in Peace."
The course is free to the public, available to anybody who makes a reservation. "They can call us spur of the moment," he says. "If our facilities aren't being used, they can come on over." Yet the course shuts down if someone is hosting a wake or a funeral--even if the mourners want to do some putting. "We get that question a lot, actually," Ahlgrim says. "People want to send their kids down to play while the adults are upstairs. And sometimes, though less frequently, they want to bring the entire group down there. But I just can't do it. For one thing, the noise goes right up through the heating ducts. You'd have all of these people trying to pay their last respects, and they'd be drowned out by the sounds of video games."
Ahlgrim comes down to the basement to play as often as possible, and he takes a giddy pleasure in pointing out the finer points of the course. "Listen to the voice," he says, leaning toward the haunted house on the sixth hole. From somewhere inside the small building a woman's voice cries, Run while you can! "That's my wife," says Ahlgrim, grinning mischievously. "Most people don't even hear it, but I get a real kick out of it."
Even outside the basement Ahlgrim goes to great lengths to brighten the mood among his guests. "Would you like to see my pride and joy?" he asks new arrivals before handing them a card with a photo of Joy detergent and Pride furniture cleaner.
The back wall of the basement is covered with banners bearing messages from Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts who've spent their afternoons playing golf and video games at Ahlgrim's. "We've had kids who came for their grandparents' funerals, and then they come back later just to play the games," Ahlgrim says. "They tell me, 'We're not afraid to come into a funeral home anymore.' I think that's really great. Death is a natural part of life, and if I can help make it seem a little less terrifying, then I feel like I've done something right."
Now 65, Ahlgrim says he plans to retire soon, and lately he's been spending more time than usual at his summer cottage in Silver Lake, Michigan. He says the future of his miniature golf course depends on his son, Douglas, who works at the Lake Zurich branch. "I didn't know it would last this long," he admits. "I suppose if Douglas wants to keep it going, that would be fine with me." He seems pleased that his son has taken an interest in the course. "I was going to close it down permanently, but Douglas wouldn't let me. I guess he thinks of it as a family tradition."
Yet Ahlgrim does intend to shut down the course for the summer if not longer, as he and his son begin some renovations. "The guillotine is getting a little rusty and doesn't always work," he says. "And I've had a few ideas for some improvements that I'd like to tinker with. I still have a few surprises up my sleeve."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Saverio Truglia.