In a grassy patch of Minneapolis’ bucolic Lakewood Cemetery, set apart from the graves marked with headstones and obelisks and a pyramid, a Japanese lilac tree looks as if it has sprouted a rainbow of dangling leaves.

Mourners have tied hundreds of ribbons to its branches to commemorate loved ones they’ve lost. The cotton strands — some vibrant, others weathered to pastel shades — are marked with handwritten messages: “My hero, how I miss you”; “You are loved always”; “Hi Dad, Ann and I are here …”

Lakewood’s year-old Living Memory Tree is based on the tradition common to many cultures of tying cloth to trees to represent wishes, peace or prayer. It’s one of several new ways Lakewood is helping people remember the deceased, and to pass on the stories of their lives, says Lakewood President Chris Makowske.

End-of-life practices, and the cemetery’s role in them, have undergone rapid change, especially now that cremation, which was rare before the 1960s, recently overtook traditional burial in popularity. (Lakewood was ahead of that trend, having built its first crematory on-site in 1908.)

The nonprofit cemetery considers itself a public resource welcome to anyone, Makowske explains — not just those who own a plot or are visiting someone interred. And with its 150th anniversary approaching in 2021, Lakewood has increased its outreach to become more relevant, accessible and inviting.

Some additions, such as hosting concerts in the chapel, help turn the cemetery into a gathering place for the living. Others are intended to make the dying process more meaningful and intentional.

The Living Memory Tree is among Lakewood’s interactive memorializing experiences that encourage personal reflection and expression. Last July, a mandala artist created an ephemeral installation from natural elements to represent grief’s transition to fond memories. In the past five Septembers, Lakewood’s annual lantern lighting ceremony (on Sept. 19 this year), has drawn thousands to decorate paper lanterns in honor of their dearly departed and float them across the cemetery’s small lake at dusk.

Any time Lakewood’s office is open, visitors can pick up a ribbon and add their tribute to the Living Memory Tree. From there, nature takes its course.


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