Death as life

Tired of being constantly surrounded by chatter at the U? Take a stroll through the beautiful Lakewood Cemetery to enjoy the chillest company on earth.

Lakewood Cemetery offers over 250 acres of tranquility in the heart of South Minneapolis.

Mark Vancleave

Lakewood Cemetery offers over 250 acres of tranquility in the heart of South Minneapolis.

by Samuel Linder

The bustle of Uptown dies suddenly as you cross into Lakewood Cemetery, replaced by a buoyant, lively silence. Lively because life fills this landscape dedicated to the deceased — the small murmurings of humans, squirrels and birds that thrum through the trees (even in winter) belie the hush of the still earth. There is no room for fear or disquiet here, because every step of the path through Lakewood is paved with beauty and memory.

The main entrance to Lakewood Cemetery lies, fittingly, at the point where Hennepin Avenue dies after its long journey through the Twin Cities. It is easily accessible by the 6 bus, which runs through Dinkytown and drops off right at the cemetery’s front gate.

Moving through the main entrance, you are confronted immediately by a raft of administrative buildings and crematoria, which lend an unfortunately sterile feel to the environment. Fight through the bureaucracy (if you’re a University of Minnesota student this should feel familiar) to stop at the feet of the first truly awe-inspiring element of Lakewood, the Memorial Chapel. Modeled after the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the Chapel was built in 1907.

“Every University student needs to see the chapel,” said Lakewood Cemetery Associations President Ron Gjerde. “The inside is done in the Byzantine style, with over 10 million individual mosaic tiles laid by imported Italian artisans. Without a doubt, this is one of the two best examples of Byzantine architecture in the entire U.S.”

Explore the little sanctuary inside and out, and then head either way on the path to explore the more mortem-centric realms.

Originally founded in 1871, the cemetery has been carefully sculpted and designed in the garden cemetery style popularized during Victorian times.

“The original 110 acres were farmland, purchased to create a rural cemetery away from the city center. I guess, over the years, the city found its way around the cemetery,” Gjerde said.

 More than 250 acres of forest, lake and graves now wind across the prime Minneapolis real estate, rolling vistas that attracted the best and brightest that ever called the Twin Cities home.

Famed politicians like Hubert H. Humphrey, John Pillsbury and Paul Wellstone now claim Lakewood’s dirt as their home, near fine neighbors such as Tiny Tim (of falsetto fame) and Franklin C. Mars (of antique candy bar fame).

However, the Cemetery does not exclude normal folk from purchasing plots.

“We have families from every way and walk of life here at Lakewood, and we welcome anyone.”

Perhaps not quite everyone. A Lakewood lot starts at nearly $2,000, not including a marker or headstone — beyond what many could pay for a beloved’s burial.

However, the range of styles visible from those that could afford Lakewood for their final resting markers is as diverse as the lively talents of the interred. Massive pyramids and obelisks in the Egyptian revival style sit next to delicate gothic spires and draped classical goddesses. This is one of the incredible things about a cemetery; in death, there are no zoning laws. No architecture is out of place, because personal agency truly matters once life is over.

This primacy of life in a place of death is one of the surprising beauties of Lakewood Cemetery. Strolling through the trees on a sunny day, you will encounter people of every shape and variety — tourists oogling the intricate architectures, family members laying flowers at a grave, (somewhat-macabre) young lovers enjoying a moment of privacy. On the shores of the lagoon (further down along the right-hand path from the chapel) on a summer day, there is a collection of flowering plants and courting birds so thick that it seems life might just revolt and claim the cemetery for itself.

“I’ve seen two bald eagles right outside of my window [at the cemetery’s administrative buildings], great horned owls, even the occasional fox on the path,” Gjerde said. “We even have a herd of deer that lives here.”

Public space is well guarded these days, and it is hard to live anywhere freely. The freedom we give to the dead, however, opens a little rift for us to feel at liberty as well. So take some time away from the hustle and bustle of life to calm down and contemplate mortality in a place brimming with heartbeats.