Lakewood Cemetery is one of Southwest’s biggest green spaces.

It’s also the source of some confusion for locals and visitors alike.  Are those imposing, institutional-looking buildings looming beyond the heavy gates at 36th and Hennepin really open to the public? What about the verdant grounds enveloping them?

The answer is a resounding “yes,” according to Lakewood Cemetery President Chris Makowske.

Lakewood Cemetery’s new welcome center, a 25,000-square foot, ultra-efficient building that opened in May after five years of design, planning, and construction, is the 150-year-old cemetery’s way of saying, “we are still here as a resource for the community, whether or not you have a loved one interred at Lakewood,” Makowske said.  

Evolving with the times

The welcome center project is a key part of Lakewood Cemetery’s wider efforts to engage more deeply with neighbors in Southwest Minneapolis and beyond.

Those efforts reflect generational shifts in Americans’ relationship with death and remembrance, which in turn have wrought profound changes in the funeral industry. Makowske describes an “old model,” prevalent until the late 20th century, that saw clergy and professional funeral directors manage most people’s end-of-life arrangements. For loved ones, that meant a more predictable process with “fewer choices needed,” he said.

The funeral industry has evolved to offer more choices beyond traditional burials, which can mean confusion for people planning their own remembrances and for those left behind when they’re gone.

“People ask, ‘what are those options,’ and they look for well-trained people to sit down and walk through them,” Makowske said.

Lakewood Cemetery’s new welcome center is designed to accommodate those conversations, plus public classes, workshops and talks broadly related to death, remembrance, grief and more.

The welcome center’s main-level community room is the cemetery’s educational hub, hosting “Learn at Lakewood” events like What Is a Death Doula? and periodic book club meetings. The center’s more private arrangement rooms, where family members meet with cemetery staff to discuss their loved ones’ final wishes, have screens and high-speed connectivity to enable synchronous conversations with friends and relatives unable to attend in person.

With windows and garden views, the arrangement rooms are also airier and more comfortable than its previous rooms, which “tended to be more closed-in,” Makowske said. One of the arrangement rooms is “not a room at all but an outdoor space — next pandemic, we’ll have a place to sit down and walk around,” he said.

The welcome center’s five-acre grounds feature three new gardens, water features, sitting areas and accessible walking paths designed by TEN x TEN Landscape Architecture. All of this is a cultivated preview of what visitors find as they venture deeper into the cemetery’s 250-acre grounds, whose “biodiverse tree canopy of more than 4,000 trees, thousands of other shrubs and specialty plants, myriad wildlife and a thoughtfully planned ecosystem” recently earned Lakewood Cemetery a Level 2 arboretum certification.

Not far from the welcome center is Memorial Chapel, Lakewood Cemetery’s other standout public space. The unmistakable domed building is “the centerpiece of the cemetery and a priceless architectural treasure,” according to Lakewood Cemetery’s website. Modeled after Istanbul, Turkey’s Hagia Sophia, Memorial Chapel features Byzantine-style mosaic tile art that “could not be recreated at any price today,” according to the cemetery.

Inside the Memorial Chapel at Lakewood Cemetery. Photo by Melody Hoffmann

Memorial Chapel has hosted regular Music in the Chapel concerts since 2018 — often sellouts on account of its cozy 160-person capacity.

The concert series is “another way for people to come in and know that they’re welcome,” Makowske said. “All of it compatible with a sense of remembrance,”

Built for the next 150 years

Fittingly for a 150-year-old nonprofit that plans to be around well after we’re all gone, Lakewood Cemetery’s new welcome center is among the most environmentally-friendly, nonresidential buildings in Southwest Minneapolis.

“It was important for us to make sure that sustainability was a part of this project, to ensure that we reflect the values of our city and neighborhood by taking the resources we have and using them wisely,” Makowske said.

The welcome center is currently “net-zero energy ready,” meaning it’s designed to produce as much energy as it consumes in a year. Lakewood Cemetery can’t officially say it’s “net-zero energy certified” until it has at least a year’s worth of data to that effect, Makowske said.

Lakewood Cemetery hopes the welcome center’s rooftop solar array, super-tight building envelope, and high-efficiency geothermal HVAC system will combine with cutting-edge energy management technology and commonsense practices to make that happen.

Solar panels on roof of the Lakewood Cemetery Welcome Center, part of the building’s net-zero energy design. Photo courtesy of JE Dunn

The Darcy Solutions-designed geothermal HVAC system runs on electricity instead of gas. Some of the electricity is generated by the rooftop solar array. During the winter, the building’s two deep wells extract heat from groundwater that remains at a more or less constant temperature year-round. In summer, it draws heat from the building and rejects it into the same groundwater reservoir.

The high-performance building envelope reduces the geothermal system’s workload with extra-thick insulation, special insulating window glass, and tight construction to minimize air leakage. Efficient LED lighting and occupancy sensors that automatically turn off lighting and HVAC in empty rooms further reduce electricity consumption. So do staff habits, like powering down computers overnight, running dishwasher loads only when they’re full, and limiting personal “plug loads” like desk fans. Lakewood Cemetery has an internal “green team” that’s constantly looking for ways to reduce its energy use, Makowske said.

“All of these [initiatives] work together to extend our culture of sustainability,” he said.

Lakewood Cemetery is located at 3600 Hennepin Ave. The welcome center is open 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. and the gates to the cemetery are open until 8 p.m. Gate hours change seasonly.