I felt a lot like Harold and Maude the other day, traipsing through Lakewood Cemetery and gawking at the life-affirming death that lay all around and under me, all the while taking to heart what the plaque outside the cemetery’s stunning chapel reminds: “Death is but a kind and welcome servant who unlocks with noiseless hand life’s flower-encircled door to show us those we love.”
Memorial Day may be Lakewood’s busiest single day of the year, with a variety of ceremonies, activities, and guided tours of the historic grounds on the docket, but for the morbidly curious at any time of the year, the 144-year-old cemetery in the heart of the city is always good for an existential stroll. Do so and it’s impossible, on a gray spring afternoon, to not hear something like the peaceful voices of the dead rustling through the leaves and trees in the wind.
Founded in 1871, four years after Minneapolis was incorporated and 13 years after Minnesota achieved statehood, on a site between lakes Harriet and Calhoun where a Dakota village once thrived for generations, Lakewood seriously provides one of the quietest meditation and prayer spots in the city. Walk through those gates anytime before closing time at 8 p.m. and you come face-to-face with the big questions of life and death and in-between, and what to do with all the heartache, all the memories of the ones we’ve lost.
It can also be a supremely joyful experience to walk amidst the religious quotes and philosophical final words, or to mutter a quiet, “Thanks, bro; I had no idea,” at the massive granite headstone trumpeting the legacy of one “Charles M. Loring, Father Of The Parks.” Nearby Mr. Loring’s grave is the Flour Mill Explosion Memorial, erected in 1885 to commemorate 18 men who were killed in the Washburn ‘A’ Mill explosion of 1878, still regarded as one of the worst disasters in city history.
Here at Lakewood, babies are buried alone or next to parents, husbands next to wives, lovers next to lovers’ as-yet empty crypts. Unmarked graves and graves etched with simply “Mother,” “Father,” “Daughter” or “Son” sit side-by-side with multi-grave family plots. Thousands of stories, legions of ghosts.
God and mortality and reminders of our own impending doom are everywhere, especially with the likes of Emanul Schmidt (1868-1921), whose to-the-point headstone reads, “Erected by friends in the Swedish Baptist churches. A true man, an earnest student and teacher, an author and historian. A true sincere Christian.” Gallows humor — or a certain Minnesota version thereof — abounds, with tombstones like the Mitchell family’s, which reads, simply, “Mitchell. We love Jesus Christ. We love our family. We tried.”
Pyramids, crucifixes, obelisks, crypts, and all sorts of dramatic gothic architecture share hill space with Civil War and fire fighter memorials and theme sections that go by the names of Babyland, Garden Of Love, and Showmen’s Rest (great band name), where circus performers and other show biz vets are planted. Not far from the grave of 19-year-old Maggie Menzel, who died in 1872 and was the first person to be buried at Lakewood, the hill overlooking Lake Calhoun is dotted with so many breathtaking statues of mothers and heroic Grecian robe-clad female figures, it should be dubbed Goddess Grotto.
It’s right up from the still-sobering-after-all-these-years graves of Paul and Sheila Wellstone, which is where I caught up with the only other visitor I spotted the other day, Iraq War veteran Nick Hanson, who was running the paths between the graves because it makes him feel alive.
“As much as everybody likes the lakes, I really hate going around people, so this is solitude and it’s a sanctuary, really,” he explained. “When I got back from my second tour of Iraq, I moved in with my girlfriend and she brought me to Lakewood and I realized it’s 2.4 miles around, and I’m a runner and I like hills, so…
“Oddly enough, the first few times I ran here it was kind of creepy, only in the sense that all the guys who did come back from Iraq with me, I noticed all of their last names on the [head] stones. It was kind of weird, but I don’t know. It’s really peaceful, man. I like it.”
Hanson runs several times a week amidst the ruins of such Minnesota luminaries as Walker Art Center founder Thomas Barlow Walker; Fridley, Minnesota namesake, farmer, and Minnesota state representative Abram Fridley; former governors Floyd B. Olson, Rudy Perpich, Orville Freeman, John Lind, and John Pillsbury; Minnesota North Stars great Bill Goldsworthy; singer/ukulele icon Tiny Tim; local parks guru Theodore Wirth; super journalist Cedric Adams; U.S. vice president and happy warrior Hubert H. Humphrey, and many more.
So happy Memorial Day, but enough already. By the end of a couple hours of hanging with the stiffs, it’s a mad dash to the front gates and flesh-and-blood freedom, because the feeling of all those bones and long-ago rotten corpses is ultimately deathly and depressing, to the point where all you want to do is get out of there and be amongst the living, and let the dead bury the dead.
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org