Mausoleum as Mnemonic Device

Volume 46, Issue 1 :: by Thomas Fisher, Assoc. AIA » Photographs by Paul Crosby

A cemetery does not just contain the remains of the dead. It also aids the memory of those who remain alive; it is a kind of physical mnemonic device that helps us remember those who have passed away, with names and dates carved in headstones or on columbaria walls to trigger our thoughts about those buried there. As time passes and those who knew the deceased also pass away, the older parts of cemeteries become less visited, like memories that fade away when no longer tapped. The one exception lies with those whose accomplishments in life keep bringing people back to their gravesites, like memories that we keep revisiting and that, as a result, stay fresh. For example, Henry David Thoreau, buried in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, continues to attract visitors who leave pencils and other artifacts at his headstone because of the effect his writing has had on them. No cemetery can bury someone who remains so alive to so many people.

On occasion, cemetery buildings affect us in the same way, their accomplishment as a work of architecture prompting us to return to them again and again because of the inspiration they offer as much as for the memories they evoke. The new Garden Mausoleum and Reception Center in Minneapolis’s Lakewood Cemetery is such a structure. Designed by a team led by Joan Soranno, FAIA, and John Cook, FAIA of HGA in Minneapolis, with Halvorson Design Partnership in Boston as landscape architects, the structure has qualities that will likely draw people to it for centuries to come. The building not only helps us remember the dead; it also reminds us of what it means to be fully alive.

The Halvorson master plan for the cemetery located the new mausoleum to the west of the main gate, along one side of a sunken terrace that linked a gorgeous Neo-Byzantine chapel, built in 1910, to a somewhat ponderous Neoclassical mausoleum completed in 1967. Soranno and Cook wisely chose not to compete with either of those two substantial structures; instead, they buried most of the new Garden Mausoleum below ground, facing a redesigned, recessed garden with a relatively small reception center at grade. “I didn’t want the building to dominate the landscape,” says Soranno. “I wanted it to sit lightly on the land, with only 5,500 square feet above ground.” Such an arrangement respects the organization of the surrounding cemetery, with its headstones and monuments having a much smaller footprint than the graves over which they stand.

Soranno and Cook draw that analogy to the gravesite almost literally in the landscaped roof that covers the mausoleum’s subterranean columbaria and crypts. The three skylights illuminating the rooms below have glazed openings that rise up from the ground as if ready to receive a burial, with gently sloping berms and angled steel retaining walls that turn these evocative forms into a kind of earth art. At night these gravelike openings in the ground emit light from below as if to remind us that death involves not just a passage into darkness but also a form of illumination, at least for the living, as we contemplate our own lives in light of those we have lost.

The mausoleum’s green roof begs to be trodden upon. “We wanted people to be able to walk on grass even though it was the roof of the building,” says Soranno, “and to let nature serve as a record of the passing of time.” The roof also has the uncanny quality of seeming to extend to the horizon, with stone terraces and planted parterres that mask the roof’s edge and with glass railings that are apparitional in their transparency and near invisibility. That lack of an apparent barrier also makes us remember, in a subliminal way, our own mortality and the thin line that separates safety from danger, life from death. It is almost impossible for a visitor not to walk over to look into the garden, which spreads out below like a miniature version of the Eden that so many of us carry in our collective memory.

The sunken garden has a broad sheet of shallow, still water at its center that reflects the sky like a mirror of the heavens above. The water drips over the thin edge of the pool, evoking the falling of tears while also providing a welcome, soothing sound in that place of mourning. Around the expansive pool stand elevated grass parterres, long stone benches, and orderly alleys of trees that offer a place to retreat from the world above and that revive an older tradition in which people came to cemeteries to relax and reflect, whether or not to visit a gravesite there. “The bowl was already a beautiful place,” says Soranno, “so we decided: why fight it?” Instead, her design opens out to the sunken garden while also beckoning visitors to come into the mausoleum, reminding us that we will all, one day, come to rest in such a place.

That accordance with our memory of how people once used and viewed cemeteries continues in the design of the mausoleum building itself. Like the weathered retaining walls elsewhere in the cemetery, the reception center at grade level has a cladding of granite masonry laid in thin, horizontal courses like geological strata, with corbelled window and door surrounds that emphasize the thickness of the walls and evoke the permanence of the place. Like the ornamented entrances of the cemetery’s older crypts, the reception center has a wide, swooping entryway with large, bronze doors surrounded by a white marble mosaic-tile wall, whose intertwined pattern (see photo, bottom of page 10) brings to mind the linkages that bind generations of families together, be they the double helixes of our DNA or the intersecting lines of our relationships with each other.

Soranno wanted the building to have such diverse interpretations. The reception center’s “abstract form,” she notes, “allows people to read different things into it,” depending upon their spiritual tradition, cultural background, and personal memories. “I wanted it to appeal to multiple faiths,” she adds, “and to relate to the iconography of various religions.” The building also evokes a universal sense of the human condition. Its serrated wall of clerestory windows, for example, looks closed and solid from some perspectives and open and vulnerable from others, like life itself. And that contrast between strength and delicacy continues in the building’s mix of exterior materials—gray granite and white marble—which Soranno saw in terms of “the juxtaposition of life and death, the temporal and the eternal.”

Mausoleums may contain the ashes of our loved ones, but they have as their primary purpose the consolation of the living and our recollection of those who have died, a role that this building handles with great skill and sensitivity. As you enter the reception center, an angled wood-clad wall and daylight from the clerestory windows, hidden from view, seem to point the way either down the wide stairway to the crypts below or back to the brightly lit reception room for gathering before or after a service. The deep-set openings in the exterior walls create shadows that have long been, says Soranno, “metaphors for death,” but the interior, she adds, helps visitors “reconnect with the landscape and with the sun, with indirect light and expansive views.” That contrast between loss and reconciliation, darkness and light, continues downstairs, in the main, subterranean level.

That level counters any memory we might have of mausoleums as dim and gloomy places. The stair and a nearby elevator descend to a wide hall, whose expansive glass doors lead out to the garden terrace while letting ample daylight into the space. A white marble floor and curving, white plaster walls lead visitors to a committal room, whose deep-set windows let indirect light into the small chapel, whose enveloping walls and ceiling seem to embrace the bereaved. Soranno says the design tries to balance “a sense of community and privacy” as people participate in a ceremony while sitting there, alone in their memories of the person who has died.

In the adjacent crypts and columbaria, “we wanted to provide variety,” says Soranno, “inside and out.” The plan of the mausoleum consists of a wide, granite-clad, marble-floored corridor connecting a series of large rooms—six crypt rooms, six columbaria rooms, and three family crypt rooms—that contain 4,400 cremation niches, 900 crypt slots, and a wall of memorial plaques for those buried elsewhere.

While the sheer number and repetition of spaces might suggest a somewhat monotonous interior, the opposite is the case. The architects have provided a remarkable diversity of spaces, each subtly different and equally stunning. All of the mausoleum’s rooms have white marble walls and floors, although inset panels of red, green, and yellow onyx in the floors help differentiate one room from the other. Daylight also enters each room in different ways. Some spaces look out to the sunken garden through large glass windows, while others frame the trees and sky above through circular, angled, or curved openings in the ceilings.

These spaces, with their quiet solitude and ample benches, provide places in which to revive the memories and recount the stories of those interred there. The mausoleum, however, also embodies the ways in which we remember. Our long-term memory of people and events depends upon the frequency and durability of our interaction with them and the emotional centrality and intensity of the relationship. Such factors obviously play a role in our memories of departed friends and family, but we see some of those same characteristics in this building: the emotionally charged way in which it uses light and views, the visual power and intensity of its forms and spaces, and the enduring quality of its materials and finishes.

In this way, the mausoleum reminds us of the creative and even joyful aspects of memory. When we remember, we bring together elements from the past in new ways, often leaving out some parts and embellishing others. In that sense, memory—like imagination—forges new combinations of ideas and knowledge out of the experiences that we have accumulated in life. We do this when we remember people, but this mausoleum does the same through architecture. It takes creative leaps that draw from our collective memory to combine forms that look at once modern and primeval, spaces that seem simultaneously ephemeral and eternal, and materials that appear both ancient and new. As with memory, the building glances backward in order to look forward. While many of us rarely visit a mausoleum and may not want to think about being interred there, this building does so much more than house the remains of the dead. It helps us remember in ways that are, frankly, unforgettable.

Thomas Fisher, Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, is on the advisory board of Faith & Form.

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