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A walk through Lakewood Cemetery

For my money the most profound meeting of public space and private lives is in our cemeteries.

You can wander through the great museums of the Twin Cities, visit the fantastic art galleries, and marvel at the murals and sculptures around town, but for my money the most profound meeting of public space and private lives is in our cemeteries. And none has a more impressive collection than Minneapolis’ Lakewood Cemetery. Located at the southern terminus of Hennepin Avenue in Uptown, Lakewood is the other great sculpture garden in the Twin Cities.

Cemeteries are one of my favorite places to relax. Something about this landscape of graves makes me totally forget our turbulent world. One of my favorite poets, Jorge Luis Borges, put it perfectly in this detail from his poem, “Recoleta Cemetery”:

The tombs are beautiful,

the naked Latin and the engraved fatal dates,

the coming together of marble and flowers

and the little plazas cool as courtyards

and the many yesterdays of history

today stilled and unique.

We mistake that peace for death

and we believe we long for our end

when what we long for is sleep and indifference.

I love that line — we long for sleep and indifference — and find myself retreating to that profound indifference of Lakewood more and more as I get older, and especially during contentious election years.

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Everyone knows that Lakewood is the place to pay one’s respects to the grand muckety-mucks in Minnesota history — the Hubert Humphreys, the Wellstones, Pillsburys, and their ilk. But since there are way too many notable monuments to cover in a piece this size, towering sculptures and obelisks that have been covered in detail already, I’d like to focus on some of the intriguing pieces commemorating those good people whose lives were fairly anonymous.

Lakewood is big, and rewards a good, long walk of an hour or two, with many excursions off the road and into the forest of headstones. As you enter, head eastward, past the great monument to Hubert H. Humphrey, and strike out up a hill in Section 30, toward the King’s Highway. You’ll find this intriguing piece, for Charles W. “Charlie” Nelson. 

Nelson grave marker
MinnPost photo by Peter Schilling
Grave marker for Charles W. “Charlie” Nelson

Nelson was, by all accounts, a gentleman who, according to the base of the monument, “laid the foundations and inspired those who continue the work,” the work being architecture. Designed by local artist Nicholas Legeros, this roughly 8-foot-high piece contains four columns of red granite, each representing Nelson’s diverse interests: historian; a grand commander of the Knights Templar; one of the founders of the Old Highland Neighborhood Association; and the above quote, summarizing his love of being an architect and teacher. The columns are surrounded at top by what appears to be a rapidly expanding bronze cube, which is actually, according to the artist, a Templar cross. In the center of the columns, carved into the base, is the Masonic square and compass.

Even without doing any research, you can see that Nelson impressed a number of people with his good works. This monument, then, speaks to community. No doubt the members of his various groups — intellectual, fraternal, communal — were so inspired by Charlie Nelson that this monument was erected in his honor. Not to diminish other stately works scattered throughout Lakewood, but Nelson’s piece seems to speak less of a man who demanded attention even in death than of a humble citizen who left a legacy that prompted others to speak on his behalf.

Every visit to Lakewood should include a pilgrimage to the southern tip of Section 28, and the Showman’s Rest memorial. Visually, this memorial is nothing to write home about — a large granite slab, nicely situated between a pair of trees and shrubs. But it’s a sweet remembrance of the lives of the men and women who raised tents, swept up after elephants and horses, and made sure the carnivals and fairs ran smoothly. Erected by the Midwest Showman’s Association, it includes a three-stanza epitaph for these oft-forgotten souls, and the monument itself is the anchor of a plot for people in show biz.

Which includes the headstone of one Callum L. de Villier, which is a red marble slab with a likeness of De Villier dancing with his partner. This one’s inscribed “World Champion Marathon Dancer — 3780 Continuous Hours.” My God. Do the math — that’s almost 160 days. According to Ron Gjerde, Jr., president of the Lakewood Cemetery Association, De Villier designed it himself, proud to be the record-holder (probably for eternity.)

beeman marker
MinnPost photo by Peter Schilling
Headstone to Edwin R. Beeman

On the edge of southernmost edge of Section 9, directly across from the imposing memorial to the Grand Army of the Republic, is one of my favorites — a headstone to Edwin R. Beeman, erected in the late 1930s. Here is a simple marble slab, with a rectangle cut out of it, and a bronze sailboat shooting through, crossing a pair of open gates. Certainly symbolic of passing through the pearly gates, but also of Beeman’s love of sailing? Of sailing Lake Calhoun? Impressive, too, is the way the bronze has streaked across the marble base, as if the water upon which the ship is sailing has coursed over the edge and toward his resting place.

Evans family monument
MinnPost photo by Peter Schilling
Evans family monument

Around the corner, not even a city block away, in Section 11, is the Evans family monument. In the middle of this section stands a roughly 8-foot-high granite tree, replete with a fern at its base and a squirrel near the top, munching on a nut. Surrounding the tree are cut up stumps and small cords of stone wood. According to Lakewood’s brochure (and I do recommend grabbing a stack of their free literature), people could order these selfsame memorials from the Sears Roebuck catalog.

This was part of what was known as the Victorian Rusticity era. “People wanted to go back to nature,” Mr. Gerdje said.

Current trends dictated the look of many of the monuments. Not only was there a Victorian Rusticity era, you’ll see obelisksfrom the Egyptian revival era and even art deco. The monument to the Guidingers, in section 40, erected in the late 20s, looks as if it’d be right at home flanking the marquee of a magnificent movie palace.

Monument to the Guidingers
MinnPost photo by Peter Schilling
Monument to the Guidingers

As you go trudge up and down hills and across these 250 acres, you’ll be thankful for the eternal kindness of the many marble benches on which to take your rest. Perhaps the most impressive of these is the monument to Eugene Sit. A large black marble monument, in the style of a Chinese gate — Sit was born in Canton. There, in the center, and with a beautiful view of Lake Calhoun, is a bench. Above the bench is a plaque that reads “Sit.”

monument to Eugene Sit
MinnPost photo by Peter Schilling
Monument to Eugene Sit

So I plopped down gazed at Lake Calhoun with Sit, thankful for his family’s gift, while in the distance, a grieving family stood over a freshly dug grave. You can call cemeteries morbid and spooky if you’d like, but I find them soulful, challenging your emotions and intellect in a way that museums cannot (and I love museums.) As Borges noted, they are our connection to the many yesterdays of history, in often surprising ways.

Peter Schilling Jr. is the author of “The End of Baseball” and the bi-weekly column Estate Sale Confidential.

Next week’s guest “stroller” will be McKnight Fellowship-winning photographer Carrie Thompson. Andy Sturdevant will return with an Oct. 24 Stroll.