The history of community mausoleums in Detroit and the Midwest
Many in Detroit are familiar with the lavish private mausoleums of Woodlawn Cemetery, such as those of the Dodge brothers and their twin sphinxes. But keep going around the cemetery pond to the far northeast corner and you will come across a building that resembles a church.
But it’s not a church – it’s a parish mausoleum. There, among the many other lesser-known deceased, you’ll find the inconspicuous graves of Aretha Franklin and members of the Kresge family.
These aboveground burial sites with thousands of graves are now found in cemeteries across the country. But they first originated and multiplied in the Midwest.
The curious history of parish mausoleum is cataloged by Amy Elliott Bragg in her essay for the recently published Midwest Architecture Journeys (Belt Publishing). The book covers a variety of stories, from pioneering personalities like Frank Lloyd Wright to flea markets in Ohio that “zigzag between the sublime and frothy along the lakeshore, through small towns and among the grain fields” as Curbed’s own Alexandra writes in Lange the introduction.
Detroit is interested in several interesting things, including one from Bryan Boyer on eagle sculptures in the city’s buildings. Others dealing with demolished public housing projects and ruining porn are sure to resonate with readers here.
Community mausoleums, however, are not a topic that is often written about.
The first patent for a community mausoleum was granted in 1907 in the small town of Ganges, Ohio. It attracted shoppers with its sanitary design and the false association of ancient Egyptian tradition. Most importantly, it gave normal people the opportunity to be buried like a rich person.
“The whole idea of mausoleums in the community is that they democratize above-ground burials,” says Bragg. “People without private wealth can build family graves.”
The concept soon spread to the Midwest and some of the greatest architects of the era were commissioned to design it. In Berkeley, the Roseland Park Cemetery Mausoleum was designed by Louis Kamper (famous for the Book Tower). With 1,200 crypts, the neoclassical marble mausoleum was at times the largest in the country when it opened in 1914.
Rows of graves in Woodlawn
Detroit’s Alvin Harley became the most important mausoleums architect in the community by mid-century. He designed Woodlawns and the “Temple of Memories” in Troy for 29 million US dollars (adjusted for inflation). He designed, writes Bragg, “the mother of all mega-mausoleums” in Hillside, Illinois, which contains over 30,000 crypts and costs 35 million US dollars to build.
Community mausoleums are strange places. According to Bragg, they often contain “eccentric architectural accents” and have inconsistent indoor and outdoor spaces. In Woodlawn there is a miasm of must and air fresheners in the air. It is easy to get lost in the rows of almost identical, sterile rooms.
“Most people don’t know that they can be easily entered,” says Bragg. “And when you do, they are often completely empty and completely silent. Sometimes they show no evidence that anyone has been inside them lately. “
Although death is eternal, there was often no solid long-term strategy for funding mausoleums in the community. As a result, many today are not in good shape. Woodlawn’s has peeling paint and signs of water damage. The same thing happens at Kamper in Roseland Park.
Many others, Bragg writes, “were abandoned – some were destroyed – after all the owners died out and the means of perpetual care dried up.”
It seems like the fad of the community mausoleum has largely ended (if not the private mausoleum – one was recently built for Mike Ilitch). If you’re interested in being buried near the Queen of Soul, there’s still room in Woodlawn.