Architectural design brings light to funeral home.
Death is not a happy subject, so most of us would undoubtedly prefer not to think about funeral homes. But sooner or later, we’re likely to end up in one, if only to attend someone else’s service. That’s why it’s fascinating to step into the newest chapel of Chicago Jewish Funerals, which has two other suburban locations.
This adventurous modernist building, at 8851 Skokie Blvd. in north suburban Skokie, isn’t a great work of architecture, but it’s a telling one.
Open since September, it lacks the windowless brick walls, red velvet curtains, dark wood paneling and other accouterments of what might be called the Dreary Funeral Home School of Design. Instead, the atmosphere is light and airy, with maple cabinets and widescreen TVs for video remembrances. Walls of golden-hued Jerusalem stone nod to centuries-old building practices inIsrael’s capital city. But no one would mistake this building for a mausoleum.
“I’m around death all the time. I didn’t want something that reflects death,” said David Jacobson, the founder of Chicago Jewish Funerals.
His building is part of a growing trend. The architecture of funeral homes across the country is becoming less somber and more celebratory. The current issue of The Director, the official publication of the National Funeral Directors Association, features a satellite funeral home near Rochester, N.Y., with a front porch, clapboard siding and abundant windows that let in ample natural light. “It looks more like a cozy cottage than a funeral home,” the director of the business says.
To avoid downtime and boost revenues, some funeral homes even host birthday and anniversary parties, along with weddings and bar mitzvahs. In Indianapolis, for example, some couples have taken wedding vows in a rotunda-topped building that sits in a vast cemetery and hosts funerals. The funeral home that owns the building refers to it as the Community Life Center.
“People might think at first that it’s strange to have a birthday party in a funeral home, but once people have had that experience, any concerns that they have go away,” insists Jessica Koth, a spokeswoman for the Brookfield, Wis.-based association.
But the newest chapel of Chicago Jewish Funerals stands out from these buildings by virtue of its strikingly modern design. Absent the sign on the front, you might think this building was a community center, a village hall, or, perhaps, a Crate and Barrel.
The building’s architect, Joseph Alexander of the Chicago firm Alexander and Associates, is not a big-name architect in the manner of Helmut Jahn. His portfolio consists of small suburban buildings, like a warehouse expansion in north suburban Glenview, and restoration work on high-rise residential buildings, including one on East Lake Shore Drive. But he came to the funeral home job with a certain empathy. The son of an architect, he’s Jewish and he knows what it’s like to go through the mourning process.
“Why do you have to have a dark, dreary building for a funeral?” Alexander said. “I just felt that, as a guy who’s lost both his parents, that it would be nice to have a bright, light, uplifting environment when you’re going through a very difficult time.”
Alexander brought something else to the project: a deep understanding of the funeral home business and its intense competition.
A cousin of his, he said, is part of the family that started what is now called Piser Funeral Services, a large, corporate-owned Jewish funeral home operator that competes with the independently owned Chicago Jewish Funerals. Piser’s traditional, brick-faced chapel, at 9200 Skokie Blvd., sits just a few blocks north of the modernist upstart.
Like the architects of the extravagant, attention-getting museums that were built in the years before the 2008 financial crisis — architect Santiago Calatrava’s addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum flaunts a mechanically operated sunshade that opens like the wings of an enormous bird — Alexander sought to use design as a tool that would advance his client’s economic interests.
“I wanted to brand his business,” Alexander said. “I wanted to give him an identity that was unlike anybody else.”
That identity derives from the building’s unusual shape, which would resemble a fan if you looked down on it from above. The fan’s curving outer edge relates nicely to the oblique angle formed by the intersection of two heavily trafficked adjoining streets, Skokie Boulevard and Niles Center Road. The architects skillfully broke down the building’s mass into clearly articulated parts that reflect its uses.
Comfortably arranged inside are a large and a small chapel on the first floor, offices on the second floor and a basement that includes a mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath, in which the body of the dead can be bathed. At the fan’s apex, just beyond a porte-cochere, is a tiny triangular building separated by just a few inches from the funeral home proper.
During some funerals, this mini-building is used by Jews known as Kohanim, who can watch the service on a TV inside. Descendants of Jewish priests in ancient times, the Kohanim are not supposed to approach a dead body lest they become ritually impure. As a result, when they attend funerals, they often must stand outside or wait in their cars. Jacobson wanted to treat them with greater dignity, and the design responds.
Without the small building, Alexander said, “They’d be out in the parking lot, running the engine.”
Alexander is an admirer of the celebrated New York architect Richard Meier, who is best known for the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Meier’s influence is readily apparent in the funeral home’s contemporary exterior of white aluminum panels, glass and the Jerusalem stone, which prevents the industrial materials from seeming clinical. But because this is a funeral home, Alexander was forced to wrestle with some difficult issues.
Much of the exterior glass, for example, is insulated, which largely prevents vehicle noise from disturbing services inside the chapels. The architect also had to protect the outside from the inside. Opaque glass makes a corridor where caskets are wheeled into the chapels invisible to passersby.
“You can’t even see the shadow of what’s behind there,” Alexander said, explaining that he wanted to avoid the sight of “dead bodies rolling back and forth.”
Alexander took similar care in dealing with the physical and emotional experience of those coming to the funeral home.
Directly in front of the main entrance, there is no curb, allowing elderly people with walkers to easily venture inside. Above couches in the lobby are two reassuring features: a wall of Jerusalem stone and light that filters down from second-floor windows, a sign of hope. The floor plan is easily grasped, with the two chapels at each end of the lobby’s curving corridor. It’s all a welcome departure from the usual funeral home maze.
The chapels themselves are well-proportioned, serene spaces. Filtered natural light, simple maple chairs and backdrops of Jerusalem stone (the stone is a veneer layered over concrete block) create an aura of calm. The TVs accommodate the way many people remember loved ones now but don’t dominate these rooms.
True, there are flaws, both inside and out. The doors facing Skokie Boulevard don’t open to people visiting the funeral home; they are primarily there to dress up the building’s street-facing facade. The simple elegance of the high-ceilinged main chapel is compromised by exposed roof trusses, ducts and wiring; it’s fine to show those things, but only if they’re artfully arranged, which they weren’t here. Rooftop mechanical equipment looks clunky, despite Alexander’s attempt to weave it into the broader composition.
There’s also a contradiction between the building’s energy-saving “green” features and the fact that it’s part of a suburban landscape that emphasizes driving over walking and other forms of transportation that don’t consume a lot of energy. A parking lot decorated with prairie grasses and other landscaping is nice, but it’s still a parking lot.
For all that, the newest chapel of Chicago Jewish Funerals is worth celebrating. While Jacobson doesn’t plan to host weddings at this building, other community events, such as a program for Hadassah, the volunteer Jewish women’s organization, are possible. That makes the new structure part of a broader trend in which a building type long associated with death is increasingly part of life.
“It’s a Jewish building that happens to be a funeral home,” Jacobson says. And it’s a modernist funeral home where the penchant for clean-lined simplicity and natural light has supplanted decoration and darkness as the guiding principles of design.
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