The dead zone

In one of Southwest's most beautiful spots, you can't escape the eternal

It's a city within a city, walled off from crime, traffic and chaos. Small waves of clear water lap at the edges of its clean little lake. Wide, gently curving boulevards carry almost no traffic. Streets are lined by big, shady trees and manicured lawns free of even a single dandelion or fallen twig. Public art is everywhere. It's quiet here in Minnesota's third-most populous city.

Trouble is, you have to be dead to live there.

Southwest's Lakewood Cemetery, a 250-acre gated community of the deceased, sits between lakes Harriet and Calhoun, home to 150,000 residents who built our city. Because it houses the dead, many living residents of Southwest, even longtime ones, rarely, if ever, venture inside its gates.

Walk about

As he strolled around the luxurious green grounds on a still, warm, summer day, Lakewood Cemetery President Ronald Gjerde clearly enjoyed showing off the quirks and beauties of the place where he has worked for 35 years.

"People are invited and actually encouraged to come in and stroll the grounds," he said. "It's a nice place to do contemplative walking."

Stew Thornley, author of "Six Feet Under: A Graveyard Guide to Minnesota," said he loves to wander Lakewood's grounds.

"I kind of like it if I get lost in there, as many times as I've been in it," he said. "That's kind of the fun of it, just to get back in there and be a little bit lost and have to figure out where you are."

Gjerde doesn't get lost at Lakewood, however. With bemused patience, he'll lead a visitor to the mausoleum housing the white marble resting place of Herbert Khaury, better known as Tiny Tim, the ukulele-strumming singer whose warbling, falsetto version of "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" catapulted him to his own peculiar version of fame back in the 1960s. (The longhaired entertainer lived in South Minneapolis for about a year before his death in 1996. He collapsed during a performance here, cutting short a rendition of his most famous song. He died at Hennepin County Medical Center.)

Gjerde'll walk along shady lanes, pointing out the graves of folks such as inventor Sir Joseph Francis (creator of the "corrugated metallic Life Car," according to his large, gray gravestone), and past the modest carved stone memorializing the death of Maggie Menzel, who was just 19 when she expired in 1872 and became the first person buried at Lakewood.

Gjerde pauses beside the towering obelisk dedicated to the 18 men who died in the Washburn "A" Mill explosion of 1878. (They say the shock could be felt in Stillwater and debris from the blast littered St. Paul.)

A few minutes later, he stops beside the graves of towering national political figures such as Paul Wellstone, buried beside his wife, Sheila, and Hubert Humphrey, lying next to his wife, Muriel.

The Wellstones' simple graves, marked with a big chunk of Minnesota red granite shaped to look like a boulder, overlook Lake Calhoun. The Humphrey monument is a low-slung slab of gray granite with the seals of the various offices and government bodies he worked for, including the Minneapolis city seal (he was mayor from 1945 to1948).

The most breathtaking sight in this green urban haven is the Lakewood Chapel, a Byzantine Romanesque marvel evoking both the architecture of the Haghia Sophia, one of Istanbul's most renowned buildings, and the artistry of the San Marco Cathedral of Venice, which served as a template for its glittering mosaic interior.

The building, constructed of St. Cloud red granite in 1909, contains 10 million pieces of tile used to assemble the intricate mosaic inside. Twenty-four stained-glass windows ring the 65-foot-high dome decorated with 12 angels dressed in pale yellow gowns.

It's the kind of elaborate, jeweled edifice we Americans travel thousands of miles to see in old Europe, but because it sits here, in the heart of home in a cemetery, we drive by it without a thought or glance.

The largest of Lakewood's many impressive monuments is all by itself like a trip to ancient Greece. The Lowry-Goodrich mausoleum is a replica of the Parthenon, looming here over a hill shaded by tall oak trees.

Said Thornley, "In some ways, it's almost kind of obscene to see such huge monuments to dead people. Or a mausoleum the size that Thomas Lowry has, when there's living people living in smaller things than that."

The people

For many visitors, the names and memories of those who are buried at Lakewood touch them more than any tribute in stone can. Some of the notable residents of Lakewood include:

– Charles Augustus Lindbergh, father of the famed aviator. He was also a U.S. Congressman representing Minnesota's 6th District from 1907 to 1917.

– H. David Dalquist, Sr., founder of the Northland Aluminum Company. His fluted cast aluminum pan, known as the Bundt pan, sold 45 million units.

– Dick Enroth, announcer for the Minneapolis Lakers during the George Mikan era.

– Callum de Villier, world champion marathon dancer, who once danced 3,780 continuous hours, according to his red speckled gravestone decorated with an etching of a man and woman dancing.

– Steven William "Will" Forshay, a member of the famed "Flying Elvises," a group of 10 skydivers who dressed up as the singer and jumped out of airplanes. They were featured in the 1992 Nicolas Cage movie, "Honeymoon in Vegas."

– Orville L. Freeman, governor of Minnesota from 1954 to 1960 and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

– Bill Goldsworthy, an original and popular member of the Minnesota North Stars, who was felled by AIDS in 1996.

– Spencer Harris, who holds the dubious distinction of having garnered more hits in baseball's minor leagues than anyone else. Harris played in 3,258 games in the minors.

– Franklin Mars, creator of the Milky Way candy bar.

– George Mikan, the Minneapolis Lakers' great who died last month. Shaquille O'Neal is reported to have paid for Mikan's funeral.

– Rudy Perpich, who served longer than anyone else as Minnesota governor.

– Juanita Wright, better known to pro wrestling fans as Sapphire. She served as wrestler Dusty Rhodes' "personal valet," often accompanying him in tag team matches against Randy "Macho Man" Savage and "Sensational" Sherri Martel.

– Floyd B. Olson, the man who led Minnesota through much of the Great Depression. He served as governor from 1931 to 1936, turning the Democrat Farmer-Labor party into a statewide political force.

The past and future of eternity

As Gjerde looked around, he contemplated the past and future of Lakewood. He said long-range plans for the nonprofit cemetery include being around for the next century or more. He said there's room for another 150,000 occupants, especially given the increasing popularity of cremations. (Lakewood does about 1,000 burials per year and inters around 1,100 cremations annually.)

The cemetery was established in 1871, just four years after Minneapolis was incorporated.

Said Gjerde, "They wanted to get the cemeteries out of the central city because they were concerned about the public health. So what they did then was to develop these cemeteries, supposedly on the outskirts of town, out in the boondocks so to speak. And that's where Lakewood was situated back in 1871."

The cemetery has its own 7-acre human-made lake (dredged out of bug-infested swamp land in 1913) and has several large greenhouses on its grounds.

Like other businesses, trends at graveyards ebb and flow, Gjerde said. Early in Lakewood history, people often chose elaborate markers for the deceased, replete with epitaphs, sculptures and engravings.

In the 1950s and '60s, the memorials flattened out, hugging the ground and typically offering the visitor nothing more than the name and birth- and death-dates of the planted one.

Said Gjerde, "Now it's coming back the other way. People want more personalization on their memorials, so cemeteries are offering them more personalization with epitaphs, intricate carvings, perhaps a likeness of the individual etched in the granite."

He said one reason that gravesites are becoming more elaborate again is that technology has advanced, making it more affordable for computer-assisted designs to be carried out.

Burial plots start at about $1,400 per space and can go up to $10,000 and more for a two-to-three-grave monument lot, Gjerde said.

Despite the long-range plans of the cemetery staff and the changes in burial fashion, Lakewood will one day fill up. Even so, those buried there will be taken care of; Gjerde said that a portion of every purchase at the cemetery goes to a fund for perpetual care, so that even when the graveyard is full, some future maintenance person will tend the city within a city.

"All cemeteries will eventually run out of space," he said. "In the cemetery business, you start going out of business the day you start selling your first lot. It's the only business I know of where you're in business to go out of business."