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Mausoleum Design: The Small Things Make a Difference

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To me, the most gratifying moment in the entire process of designing a new building is my first visit following completion, when I can watch how people use the new structure. As a natural observer and as a designer of mausoleums and garden crypt buildings, I find it both profound and poignant to see individuals, many of whom are going through a period of tremendous emotional turmoil, interacting with a building whose purpose is to impart sympathy, comfort, and hope to its visitors. Certainly, one of the most distressing moments in a person’s life is the death and burial of a loved one. As a prime setting for this event, the mausoleum building is a sacred environment where the journey from grief to healing can occur.

In a recent visit to a project I’ve been working on for the past three years, the new Immaculate Heart of Mary Garden Crypt Complex at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, IL, it occurred to me that the success of a mausoleum building can be measured as much by the small things – a comfortable place to sit, a ray of light shining down a corridor,, the trickle of water from a nearby fountain – as by the larger, economic issues of price points, market demand, and maintainability. In fact, as I have come to believe over the course of my career, the two are inextricably linked in a mausoleum, as it is truly a building type that supports the notion that “it’s not just about architecture; it’s about people.”

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A Building That Will Sell Itself

The short- and long-term success of a mausoleum can rest on a number of factors, including location, demographics, inventory and pricing, image and appeal, sales and marketing, and, over the course of time, maintainability. Each of these factors can influence whether the crypts will be sold, whether a suitable return on investment will be received, and whether individuals will feel comfortable in the environment, either as a grieving loved one or as a prospective pre-need buyer.

When we first began the process of designing the Immaculate Heart of Mary Garden Crypt Complex at All Saints Cemetery we asked the client, the Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago, what their goals were for the new building. Their answer was that they wanted a building that would provide a religious presence in the community and also effectively “sell itself”. In other words, they were looking to make the extra short-term investment in a building that would offer visitors a sense of peace and tranquility while acting as its own commanding salesperson and thereby alleviate the long-term costs associated with expanding its actual sales force.

But how is something like this done? In a mausoleum project, it is accomplished through the use of such things as features, artwork, and water, as well as scale, materials, color, and light – in short, all of the tools that an architect has at his/her disposal to create appeal and comfort. These tools mixed with a savvy understanding of the customer’s “buying tendencies”, such as a desire to be place near features or near water, a desire to have a variety of pricing options, and a need for overhead shelter from the elements, can help direct the overall design solution.

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A Sense of Peace and Serenity

The two most dramatic features of the new garden crypt complex at All Saints Cemetery are the entrance tower, with its striking terra cotta artwork, and the long black granite fountain that serves as a central axis through the building while delivering the sound of falling water throughout the entire complex. One of my satisfactions in visiting the garden crypt complex was in seeing how people congregate around the fountain, seated along its edge to relax their feet and cool off next to the vertical jets of water.

Additional amenities include four ceramic mosaic niche elevations, each of which is based on significant events in the life of Mary, and a gazebo immediately west of the complex arrived at by a footbridge over a man-made pond. The gazebo contains a statue titled “Madonna and Child”, and offers another spot in the complex for reflection and grieving.

Each of these design elements – from the mosaic artwork to the skylights that provide both illumination and shelter – serves to reflect the sanctity of the burial practice and the profound nature of the grieving process with the objective of creating a sense of peace and serenity. They also serve as a reinforcing statement, better than any salesman could, that this is the right place for a loved one to reside.

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The Wisest of Investments

The success of a mausoleum or garden crypt complex does not, however, rest entirely on the features and aesthetic concerns. For a building to work at all, it needs to come together in a very precise manner. This begins at the initial master planning stage when a building concept is outlined in relation to its site. For instance, if the client’s objective is to generate public interest for the new development, one might place the building immediately inside the cemetery’s main entrance, visible from the adjacent roadway. Or it might be determined that a mausoleum should take marginal land, unfit for ground burial, in an altogether different section of the property.

Furthermore, the building materials of a mausoleum or garden crypt complex need to reflect the sanctity of the property and convey a sense of permanence. The materials should also be durable and as maintenance free as possible, such as low-maintenance, pre-cast panel systems for the construction of the garden crypts and durable granite for the crypt fronts. The use of skylights can also minimize the need for snow removal, a common source of damage to garden crypt complexes.

It is understood, of course, that a cemetery property typically presents more development opportunities than there is financing to embrace these opportunities. However, because a mausoleum or garden crypt complex designed and built with a minimum initial cost will, in the long run, not be the wisest of investments, a careful prioritization of needs is typically necessary to determine how to get the best possible building for the given funding.

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Respect and Care

When most people find out that I am a practicing architect, they typically respond with genuine interest. However, when they find out that I am an architect of mausoleums, their interest oftentimes transforms itself into bewilderment, as if it had never occurred to them that such a building would require the attention of a professional designer.

While the public’s attitudes towards death and dying may very well be in the midst of a shift, it is nevertheless critical that buildings of such importance, whose mission is to serve as the permanent, eternal caretakers of the departed, receive the professional attention and financial investment they deserve. It is the duty of each of us in this industry to treat these buildings with respect and care, just as we so dutifully treat our loved ones.

 


 

Ken Giere, AIA, is a Project Manager at Chicago based Mekus Tanager, Inc. With over 29 years of experience in the industry, Mr. Giere is responsible for managing many of the firm’s cemetery design projects in various regions of the country.


This article originally appeared in American Cemetery, May 2002 Vol 74 No 5.

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