Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois is not your typical graveyard. It receives visitors from all parts of the world who come to pay their respects at the final resting place of President Abraham Lincoln.
Roy Bertelli wanted to be one of the 77,000 people who, in death, can claim Lincoln as a neighbor. His fight to win that privilege has resulted in Oak Ridge’s claim to another tourist site: the gravesite of Mr. Accordion.
As far as cemeteries go, Oak Ridge is prime real estate. Opportunities to acquire burial plots are few and far between. For that reason, when, in 1997, Roy Bertelli learned of the availability of a tiny triangle of land adjacent to the road leading to Lincoln’s tomb, he was ecstatic. He bought it on the spot and considered himself blessed that he was destined to share an address with the Great Emancipator.
Bertelli’s joy was short-lived. A couple of weeks after buying the plot, he got a disappointing letter from the cemetery administrator. The plot had been sold to him in error. The administrator was very sorry about any inconvenience this may have caused him.
Disappointment does not begin to describe Bertelli’s reaction. Before he could process this discouraging turn of events, he received another letter. This one was from the cemetery’s attorney. It sternly informed Bertelli that the cemetery planned to seize the plot and would bring legal action against the man if he got in the way.
The second letter was too much. Although disappointed, Bertelli would have returned the plot after receiving the first letter. Mistakes happen, after all. It was the obnoxious tone of the second letter that set him off. In the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, Bertelli refused to be enslaved by someone who threatened him with force. He vowed to declare his emancipation from such an oppressive and unjust power.
Although he was in good health and not planning on moving to the cemetery any time soon, Bertelli decided to make some improvements to his newly-acquired real estate. Spending $30,000, he built a massive crypt on the site with a large elevated tablet behind it. On the tablet, he had engraved the words, “Roy Bertelli, Mr. Accordion.” The eye-catching structure immediately drew the attention of every tourist who approached Lincoln’s tomb.
When it was completed, Bertelli was thrilled. He made frequent visits to his future resting place, stood atop the crypt, and played his accordion. This amazed tourists. It also infuriated the civic leaders of Springfield.
“(T)he dignity of the entrance to Oak Ridge Cemetery has been compromised,” Von Carroll of Springfield wrote in a March 1998 letter to The State Journal-Register. “The crisp and inspiring view to Mr. Lincoln’s tomb has been altered… So roll out the calliope! Turn on the neons! We’re having fun now.”
Bertelli responded in his own letter to the editor:
First and foremost, my project was carefully designed and constructed to exact specifications by professionals to meet full approval by the cemetery. …
Mr. Carroll clearly attempts to ridicule and defame my reputation and the character of my musical profession, which I strongly resent. He calls accordion an inanimate object? Has he ever heard of Lawrence Welk, Dick Contino, Frank Yankovic? Ignorance is bliss!
Bertelli refused to cave in to pressure, and he got to keep his cemetery plot and the curious monument he constructed. He continued to make appearances to play his beloved accordion until shortly before his death in 2003.
Many internet rumors insist that as a final act of defiance to city, Bertelli had one of his accordions buried at the site but chose another cemetery for his final resting place. Neither of those claims are true.
Those stories, such as the ones on mentalfloss.com and RoadsideAmerica.com, suggest that Bertelli is buried at Camp Butler National Cemetery. Some versions add the claim that he had one of his accordions burnt and those ashes placed in the Oak Ridge mausoleum.
A more reliable account is the contemporary report in an article by The State-Journal Register reporter John Reynolds:
What may be the second-most famous tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery now holds the remains of its owner.
Roy Bertelli, also known as “Mr. Accordion,” died Saturday at the age of 92. On Thursday, his ashes were placed inside his mausoleum, which lies in the shadow of Lincoln’s Tomb.
Murphy (Brian Murphy, manager of Vancil Memorial Funeral Chapel) added that Bertelli had requested that one of his accordions be buried with him, but the cemetery denied that request.
LuAnn Johnson, executive director of Oak Ridge Cemetery, said the cemetery’s rules state the facility is only for human burial.
“It’s just part of our rules and regulations,” Johnson said.
As for the assertion that he is buried at Camp Butler, that is easily disproved by National Cemetery Administration records, which are available online. No one named Roy Bertelli is buried anywhere in the national cemetery system.
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