Lakewood Cemetery Unveils Plans for New Welcome Center
The project includes a half-mile walking trail and four new garden areas. Courtesy of Lakewood Cemetery

Lakewood Cemetery Unveils Plans for New Welcome Center

The Minneapolis institution is building a 25,000-square-foot welcome center to draw more visitors.

A place for the dead is making more space for the living.

Lakewood Cemetery⁠ — the final resting place for lawmakers Hubert H. Humphrey, Paul Wellstone, and several other prominent Minnesotans — on Thursday announced plans to open a 25,000-square-foot welcome center in a bid to draw more visitors and expand community outreach.

“It’s going to be new for us to actually have a dedicated space to host educational events,” said Lakewood Cemetery president Chris Makowske in a Thursday interview. “Right now, a lot of those events tend to share space with our mausoleum, which is developed more for receptions.”

The cemetery will build the new center on an undeveloped plot of land east of the existing administration building.

That administration building won’t go away entirely, but Makowske anticipates that Lakewood will move many of its tasks to the new welcome center, which will include more office space for the cemetery’s employees. Lakewood currently employs a staff of 31, though the organization adds about 40 to 50 seasonal employees over spring and summer.

The expansion project also includes a half-mile walking trail and four new garden areas. Makowske declined to share how much Lakewood will spend on the project, but he noted that it will be a “significant investment” coming out of the nonprofit’s endowment.

These days, Lakewood hosts about 10,000 visitors in a typical year, Makowske estimates. That’s not just people coming to visit loved ones’ grave sites or memorials: Some come for birding events, weddings, or other community functions. Others just come to walk the grounds.

This year, the cemetery will host about 75 events. Makowske said that figure marks a significant uptick over prior years, but he’s hopeful that trend continues. “It’s ramped up a little bit this year since the pandemic,” he said.

Makowske sees the project as a way to round out the cemetery’s educational and community event offerings. Lakewood already offers workshops on grief and loss, alongside an ongoing series about the cemetery itself. There’s even a “death cafe” event for folks to “enjoy a treat, have some tea, and discuss death,” according to the cemetery’s website.

The concept of a cemetery as a tourist destination isn’t totally novel. Consider Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery, which says it welcomes more than 3 million visitors a year. Makowske doesn’t necessarily see Lakewood rising to the level of Arlington, but he’s certainly happy to welcome more visitors. “Rather than a tourist attraction, we’re more of a destination for people to come to appreciate beauty and serenity,” Makwoske said. “It’s not so much about the hype. It’s about taking time for what’s meaningful in your life.”

What won’t be included in the expansion: More spaces for gravesites. Makowske said the place has the space to serve families for “another 100 years or so.”

“Cremation has helped us in that regard,” he added. “There won’t be any specific space for actual graves with this project. We’re using some currently undeveloped space to build this.” The project won’t affect any existing grave sites.

He has noticed a slight uptick in people making future burial arrangements after the onset of Covid. “It brought people a sense of their own mortality. A lot of people are going out and making arrangements for themselves and planning ahead,” he said. “We’re also starting to see the leading edge of baby boomers hitting that stage of their life.”

Lakewood Cemetery, which is marking its 150th anniversary this year, has tapped three Minneapolis-based architecture firms to complete the project: Miller Dunwiddie, Snow Kreilich Architects, and Ten x Ten Landscape Architecture. Kansas City, Missouri-based JE Dunn Construction is the construction manager for the project. Construction is slated to begin this summer and wrap up by 2024.

More than anything, Makowske said, the project will give the cemetery a better platform to reach the community.

“We’ve got this beautiful area here in the heart of Minneapolis that’s here to serve the public, and the public doesn’t often know we’re here,” said Makowske, a 13-year Lakewood employee who took over as president upon Ron Gjerde’s retirement in 2019. “We’re exciting about providing space like this to invite people in.”