The Spiritual Impact of Cemetery Architecture

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By Christopher Mekus, AIA, and Margie Kurkowski


Mekus Tanager has been designing cemeteries for the Catholic community since 1984, and recognizes the need for a sacred environment where the journey from grief to healing can occur and the structures of the cemetery properly reflect the sanctity of the Catholic faith.

One of the challenges architects face when designing for a Catholic cemetery is the role that sustainability, not just environmental but cultural, must play. Mekus Tanager has specialized in cemetery architecture for more than 30 years, and we know that to make a cemetery Catholic, certain traditions need to be maintained.

In the planning process, we evaluate the relationship between architecture and spirituality to properly plan the cemetery and increase the feelings of religious Catholicism. The spiritual and psychological needs of mourning are strongly considered in shaping the built environment.

A monumental significance that communicates a Catholic tradition and proper reverence for the deceased can be created and reinforced in many ways – throughout the site/master plans; mausoleums, chapels and crypts; materials and colors; and symbolism and structure.


Site / Master Plans

Many established cemeteries have already been fully developed, and land utilization and maximization need to be addressed in the planning stage. Comprehensive master plan studies are done to address the long-term needs of the cemetery.

The plans also need to accommodate for the funeral procession while preserving the naturalness of the landscape.

If water does not exist naturally on the landscape, water features can be added to symbolize the sacraments of baptism and last rites. The sound of the water is soothing to mourners and provides for wildlife in a natural setting. All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, Illinois, effectively showcases the use of water to provide a naturalistic environment while complementing the surrounding area.

When developing the garden crypt plan, Mekus Tanager worked with the existing landscape and added ponds to the Immaculate Heart of Mary Garden Crypt Complex located at All Saints Cemetery.


A bridge was built across the pond to provide an uplifting experience with a parallel to Christ’s steps over water. The fountains provide a focal point for the water system, but also a place of serenity and meditation.

While developing the site plan for All Saints Cemetery, Mekus Tanager situated the new Chapels and Administration building in an east-west orientation to track with the rising and setting of the sun, symbolizing the journey from birth to death.

The shame of the site plan is egg-like, providing symbolism that nature has provided new life.


Mausoleums, Chapels and Crypts

The new administration complex is also orientated towards the main entrance of the cemetery to enhance its visibility and presence. While standing at the entrance of the complex, the main axis can be seen rising towards the heavens, physically representing the recently departed’s journey from this life to the next. There are also three chapels incorporated into the administration building, symbolizing the Holy Trinity through architecture.


The interiors of the chapels were designed to create a light-filled, spiritual experience, using curved architectural precast concrete panels and floating, angled wood ceilings.


Environmental responsibility was taken into careful consideration by redirecting demolition and construction waste from the landfill to recycling opportunities to advocate good stewardship of precious natural resources.

Other environmental initiatives included electrical and water efficiencies that minimize the use of non-renewable resources, maximizing the use of natural light to reduce reliance on interior lighting, a storm water detention system to ease the impact on the natural environment and the local municipal system, and recycling, green maintenance and educational programs.


Symbolism and Structure

Maryhill Cemetery in Niles, Illinois, effectively conveys a high level of Catholic symbolism through the use of art and architecture in the Mary Mother of Roses Garden mausoleum complex. The convex curve of the exterior façade embraces the crypts gently, but it also imposes a monumental impression of the entire cemetery, which provides a profound and reverent sacred setting for healing to begin.


The garden mausoleum buildings are open to the surrounding landscape, and Mekus Tanager designed each crypt with designated areas for biblical artwork and sculptures. The outdoor chapel provides for a committal ceremony and has a stained glass window that hugs the roof of the building with an image of the Blessed Mother. When one stands under the shelter and looks upward at the vision of Mary surrounded by roses, a feeling of the divine is awakened in the visitor as the sunlight penetrates the stained glass. Roses have historically been used during the committal ceremony and epitomize the image of Our Lady of the Holy Faith. The window was designed by Conrad Pickel Studios of Vero Beach, Florida.

As one moves past the garden mausoleums near the side of the complex, there is a garden with three crosses in the center, pointing towards the heavens, and a ring of columbarium units surrounding a sidewalk. This rich symbolism of the Holy Trinity provides a tranquil section among the trees and natural landscape. Entitled “Cross Shadow” the design is intended to cast the shadow of The Cross of Jesus on the crypt buildings year after year. The Cross of Jesus was given a special inner light/glow to represent that inner light given to each of us. It was designed by Mark Dotzler, of St Louis, Missouri.



Materials and Color

The physical materials used to construct buildings within the cemetery need to stand the test of time, and stay simple and classic. Mekus Tanager frequently uses precast concrete to provide a strong foundation for the departed. The natural tones of the materials are intended to convey the sentiment expressed by the biblical phrase: “Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return…”

To preserve the sanctity of human life, the materials and colors of the interior chapels are minimal. The interior furnishings usually consist of benches, holy water, a simple crucifix, and baptismal candle.

The chapels are designed this way to take into consideration the psychological needs of the family and friends of the deceased, and to provide a warm and comforting environment, the sole purpose of which is to focus on the dignity and life of the deceased.

How will cultural sustainability shape the future of the built environment? Mekus Tanager predicts that the built environment will inspire more community involvement in future cemeteries.


During Memorial Day weekend in 2008, a celebration Mass was held at St. Michael the Archangel cemetery in Palatine, Illinois. Families celebrated their earthly community together, as well as the historical community of the many interred families, together for all time in this holy place. By providing more areas for community involvement, the cemetery moves away from a purely somber space and becomes a space where the deceased are remembered and celebrated, and the feeling of Catholicism is shared.


 This article was published in American CemeterySeptember 2008 Vol 80 No 9.


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Mekus Tanager is a planning and design firm. Since 1984, Mekus Tanager has been helping our clients turn their buildings and spaces into well-designed strategic assets that maximize aesthetic beauty, function and purpose, and return on investment. We are committed to listening to and working with our clients as a true partner throughout the design process.


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