Graveyards pop up on residential lawns this time of the year, and the tombstones issue dire warnings or make jokey puns. They’re part of the Halloween landscape, because graveyards are frightening, right? All those boxes below with restless wraiths ready to rise. The ancient stones jutting up like fingerbones. The wind rises; a cloud shrouds the moon; lightning cracks — it’s a horror movie cliché.
But the real thing isn’t scary at all.
Graveyards can be peaceful and full of muted beauty, silent fields with crops of stone. You might drive by them often, and you might avert your eyes or speed up a little. Someday, sure, but not today. Touring a graveyard when you’ve no reason to visit might seem a bit morbid, the sort of thing you imagine metalheads and goths doing for fun because it’s dark, man. You do feel like an interloper, a tourist studying the faint remains of ancient strangers’ grief.
You might also find yourself amazed at what you find — and smiling at the stories the names suggest. You also see how the city planned these places to stand at a distance from the communities they served, only to find the city rushing past it like pedestrians passing a sleeping man on the street.
Lakewood Cemetery is surrounded by the city on three sides and Lake Calhoun on the fourth. When founded in 1871, Minneapolis petered out around Franklin; Lakewood would be accessible by horse. It was dedicated in 1872, designed in the natural, rambling style of American parks. Unlike formal gardens that imposed a rational grid on nature, the naturalistic approach preferred to let people wander through the bowers of an idealized landscape where the hand of Man was hidden.
The hands of fate and time, though, that’s another matter. As you walk among the headstones you see the changing tastes, the shift in styles, the prosperity of the town reflected in monoliths that outdo each other in a bleak parody of New York’s skyscraper contests of the 1920s.
Exquisite sculpture: a solemn woman in a temple contemplates the life and works of Mr. Fridley; another in classical drapery looks into the distance with a book in her hand, her finger resting between the pages to save her place, as if she’s contemplating the unexpected death of a character in the story. Over there, a soldier stares to the south, where the battles of the Grand Army of the Republic were fought; down the path, a monument to men who died in the Great Mill Explosion of 1878. A place for the people who did large deeds, built great things, lived broad lives. Perpich. Carlson. Donaldson. Humphrey.
And Uncle Joe. The small print on his monument says “Joseph Nelson 1793-1886,” but big black letters shout UNCLE JOE, because that’s how they knew him. (You wonder if he ever met the fellow whose stone says UNCLE BOSTON.) In the shadow of the great monuments are small stones set in the earth with names worn by wind, and even though the grounds are exquisitely maintained, it only takes a few leaves to fill the small space where the stone can speak the identity of the occupant below. You brush away the dead leaves to read the name; you see the dates, wonder if anyone’s been by since the end of World War II. You wish you had something to leave. But there are so many small stones. There aren’t enough flowers at the market for them all.
Lakewood has three noteworthy buildings representing their respective eras: the Memorial Mausoleum, built in 1965, marries muted restraint with exuberant, bright stained-glass windows; Joan Soranno’s 2012 Garden Mausoleum uses granite and glass to create an intimate, contemplative space where the permanence of stone and transience of vegetation have a year-round conversation. The jewel of the cemetery is Harry Jones’ 1909 chapel — a muted piece of Byzantine architecture on the outside, and a glorious, unworldly realm of light and color within. The interior, designed by New Yorker Charles Lamb, is covered with mosaics that seem to store noontime light to comfort the dusk. To stand in the middle of the room reading the recursive motto that runs around the base of the dome — Until The Day Break And The Shadows Flee Away — you feel exalted by the infinitesimal beauty of the room. It may be death that brings people here, but the radiant space is transcendent. More than death, and more than life. When you leave it for the cemetery outside, the headstones and monuments seem almost petty and earthbound.
But that’s the end of every funeral, no? Down to the church basement for coffee and sandwiches. The return of the mortal details, necessary and ordinary. But if you walk from Jones’ chapel down the steps to the plaza by the mausoleum, you might notice something odd about the way the stones are set in the grass. They’re irregularly spaced. You can’t just walk along as you proceed down a sidewalk, confident there will be pavement where you go. You have to pay attention. You might think your gait will carry you along without trouble or interruption. That is not always the case.
There are other cemeteries in town with their own character. Oak Hill on Lyndale Avenue S. has its share of early Minneapolis residents, and room for more: A big empty field, waiting for tenants, faces the main Bachman’s garden center, where the cycle of life and death and rebirth plays out at a much brisker pace.
There’s the careworn Pioneer and Veterans Cemetery on Lake and Cedar, where stout trees have shouldered aside some of the headstones, making you wonder how many roots wrap around the bones below. It’s closed for the season now; you see the grave markers through iron bars, like prisoners.
In each case the cemeteries preceded the city, and the city adjusted to accommodate their presence. Lakewood stands apart for its location and elegant grounds, but there’s something else that makes it the quintessential Minneapolis resting place. And it’s not the tony lake view. Hennepin is the entertainment district downtown — light and noise and gaiety, food, music, dance and all the transitory embellishments of mortal life. It’s a bright and fascinating street, but after the shows are shuttered and the kitchens are closed, the pavement stretches past Uptown’s last party, south into shadowed lands and arrives at the bone-white columns of Lakewood.
Hennepin ends at the gates of the grave.