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The curious history of community mausoleums in Detroit and the Midwest

This odd burial concept, which spread across the country, started here

A stone, church-like building in front of a green lawn. There’s a steeple to the right of the entrance.
The community mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery
Photos by Aaron Mondry

Many in Detroit are familiar with Woodlawn Cemetery’s lavish private mausoleums, like that of Dodge brothers and its twin sphinxes. But continue around the cemetery’s pond to the far northeast corner and you’ll come upon a building that resembles a church.

But it’s not a church—it’s a community mausoleum. There, you’ll find the inconspicuous tombs of Aretha Franklin and members of the Kresge family, among the many other lesser-known deceased individuals.

These above-ground burial facilities accommodating thousands of tombs can be found in cemeteries throughout the country today. But they originated and proliferated first in the Midwest.

The curious history of the community mausoleum is catalogued by Amy Elliott Bragg in her essay for the recently published Midwest Architecture Journeys (Belt Publishing). The book covers a wide variety of stories, from seminal figures like Frank Lloyd Wright to flea markets in Ohio, “zigzagging between the sublime and the frothy, along the lakeshore, through small towns, and out among the cornfields,” as Curbed’s own Alexandra Lange writes in the introduction.

There’s several pieces of interest to Detroit, including one by Bryan Boyer about eagle sculpture in the city’s buildings. Others on demolished public housing projects and ruin porn will certainly resonate with readers here.

But community mausoleums is not a topic that’s often written about.

The first patent for a community mausoleum was issued in 1907 in the small town of Ganges, Ohio. It attracted buyers with its sanitary design and fake connection ancient Egyptian tradition. But most importantly, it gave regular folks the opportunity to be buried like a rich person.

“The whole idea of the community mausoleums is that it democratizes above ground burial,” Bragg says. “It’s available for people who don’t have private fortunes to build family tombs.”

The concept soon spread across the Midwest and some of the era’s greatest architects were commissioned to design them. In Berkeley, Roseland Park Cemetery’s mausoleum was designed by Louis Kamper (of Book Tower fame). At 1,200 crypts, the Neoclassical marble mausoleum was for a time the largest in the country when it opened in 1914.

Two rows with marble sides and names written on the front at regular intervals.
Rows of tombs at Woodlawn

Detroit-based Alvin Harley became the foremost architect of community mausoleums in the middle of the century. He designed Woodlawn’s, as well as the “Temple of Memories” in Troy at a cost of $29 million (adjusted for inflation). He also designed, writes Bragg, “the mother of all mega-mausoleums” in Hillside, Illinois, which contains over 30,000 crypts and cost $35 million to build.

Community mausoleums are strange places. According to Bragg, they often contain “eccentric architectural touches” and have mismatched interiors and exteriors. At Woodlawn, a miasma of must and air fresheners hangs in the air. It’s easy to get lost amidst the rows of nearly identical, sterile rooms.

“Most people don’t know that you can just walk into them,” Bragg says. “And when you do, they’re often completely empty, completely silent. Sometimes they show no evidence of anybody having been in them recently.”

Despite death being eternal, there often wasn’t a sound long-term strategy for funding community mausoleums. As such, many are not in great shape today. Woodlawn’s has peeling paint and signs of water damage. The same is happening at Kamper’s in Roseland Park.

Many others, writes Bragg, “were abandoned—some razed—after all the owners died out and perpetual care funds dried up.”

It seems like the community mausoleum fad has largely ended (if not the private mausoleum—one was recently built for Mike Ilitch). Though if you’re interested in being buried near the Queen of Soul, there’s still space at Woodlawn.

Woodlawn Cemetery

19975 Woodward Avenue, , MI 48203 Visit Website