A walk among the dead

Lakewood Cemetery summer walking tours explore stories of those passed on

Katie Thornton (center), a guide at Lakewood Cemetery, leading a tour on June 13. Photo by Austen Macalus

There’s more than bodies buried at Lakewood Cemetery.

The cemetery, the final resting spot of many of Minneapolis’ founders and Minnesota’s leaders, is also home to all the stories and sagas that come along with its inhabitants.

That history is far from dead. This summer, Lakewood is hosting group walking tours, guiding visitors past the graves of the famous figures buried adjacent to the Chain of Lakes.

“It’s a really awesome opportunity to uncover some of the stories that are there,” said Katie Thornton, a tour guide at the cemetery.

With over 250 acres of green space, there’s plenty of ground for her to cover on the hour-long tour.

“What’s really exciting when you dig into the history of the cemetery is that there have been a big variety of people buried there throughout the eras,” Thornton said.

The first tour, led by Thornton on June 13, highlighted prominent artists and performers on the grounds, including Tiny Tim, the singer known for his high-pitched falsetto, and Thomas Barlow Walker, the namesake of the Walker Art Center.

“We also stop by the graves of some folks who are lesser known today,” she said, pointing out Pauline Fjelde, the textile artist who embroidered the first state flag.

Other stops feature the outright wacky, like the gravesite of world-record marathon dancer Callum deVillier; his record, 3,780 continuous hours of dancing, is etched on his tombstone.

“Sometimes you find information that begs you to learn more,” Thornton said. “These stories (add) a little complexity to the things we see everyday.”

At face value, taking a stroll over the now-deceased may not sound like the best way to spend a Wednesday evening. But beneath the initial apprehension, not to mention the obvious “Thriller” comparison, there’s a lot to be found exploring the stories of those in Lakewood.

Thornton believes the tours are an important way to document the past.

“[Cemeteries] represent a public archive… you don’t have to go to a library,” Thornton said. “Cemeteries present an opportunity for anybody to access history.”

The tour group featured a mix of history buffs, residents in the area and folks who were too curious not to check out the graveyard, around 40 people in total.

Michael Weiler, one of the participants, admitted he often drove by the cemetery when he was younger without knowing what was inside. But he recently became fascinated by Lakewood’s history.

“I was just overwhelmed,” he said of the tour. “There was so much (to learn).”

Most people in the group were more than eager participants, furiously scribbling down facts in notepads, staying behind to examine tombstones or sharing their own tidbits of lesser-known knowledge with the group.

Jim Shetler, a self-described cemetery enthusiast on the tour, was fascinated by each grave’s intimate, and inherently mournful, history.

“I don’t know if it’s morbid or not,” Shetler said.

Beneath the enthusiasm remained a quiet respect for the dead. This is a cemetery, after all.

At one point on the tour, a man bent down to tidy up a tombstone in the ground, cleaning of the dirt and pulling some of the long grass around its edges. Other visitors thanked him for the simple service.

Peter Sussman, an architect by training in the group, was happy to see the public interest.

“People aren’t necessarily familiar to the cemetery,” he said. “To have access to a story like this is unique.”

Although Lakewood is still a functional cemetery — with plenty of burial space open — it is more than just your run-of-the-mill graveyard, and has been throughout its history.

When Lakewood was founded in 1871, only four years after Minneapolis was incorporated, it served as one of the city’s first public parks. Today, the cemetery continues to offer a public space.

The tours are part of the cemetery’s larger outreach efforts, according to Lakewood President Ron Gjerde.

“Lakewood has such a rich history,” said Gjerde. “We think it’s important to share it with the community.”

The tours are an expanded form of programs Lakewood has offered on Memorial Day. And there are more planned throughout summer. Upcoming tours focus on Minnesota inventors, notable women and Minneapolis leaders.

In addition, the cemetery is hosting summer concerts in the Memorial Chapel, a beautiful domed building lined with Byzantine-inspired mosaics on the inside. Gjerde, who is retiring from his official role at Lakewood the end of the year, wants to continue fostering a welcoming environment.

Both Gjerde and Thornton hope visitors will learn more about the history in their own backyard.

“Throughout Lakewood’s history, it’s been a place for people to come together in celebratory and somber times,” Thornton said. “We are interested in keeping that tradition up.”


If you go…

Where: Lakewood Cemetery, 3600 Hennepin Ave.

When: Every other Wednesday at 6 p.m.

Cost: $5

Info: lakewoodcemetery.org

July 11: Minnesota Inventors

Explore the stories behind Scotch tape, skyscrapers and metal lifeboats and their inventors.

July 25: Lakewood Founders

Featuring Dorilus Morrison, Minneapolis’ first mayor; William D. Washburn, U.S. Senator and businessman; Charles Loring, Park Board president; this tour highlights the early founders of Lakewood.

Aug. 8: Notable Women

Learn about women who influenced Minneapolis throughout the eras, including women’s healthcare advocate Harriet Walker, suffragist Clara Ueland, salon entrepreneur and educator Myndall Cain.

Aug. 22: Early Minneapolis Leaders

Gov. John S. Pillsbury, John H. Stevens and George Brackett are some of the prominent city leaders highlighted.