Contextualism in the Desert

By Christopher Mekus


The Southwestern United States is usually defined as the four state area of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Arizona. After Mexico was conquered by the Spanish in the early mid-1500s, their influence spread into Arizona. Permanent colonies began to develop and the Church began building missions near Indian villages to convert them to Christianity. In Arizona, the Jesuits built their first mission in the late 1600s. As part of the Church, paintings and sculptures of Christian themes were an integral part of communicating with the American Indians. Since language was a barrier, it was more effective to tell them about Christ through visual images.

To reflect this cultural heritage, the design of the garden mausoleum and columbarium complex at Holy Redeemer Cemetery, in Phoenix, AZ, utilizes visual images to convey the elements of the Church and Christianity. When Mekus Tanager was asked to design the 534 crypt and 2,600 niche garden complex, the architecture of the southwest played a key role as a unifying force in the development of this new cemetery.

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Mausoleum Design: The Small Things Make a Difference

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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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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