If you visit Lancaster’s 48-acre Greenwood Cemetery and walk to its highest point in the Buchanan Section, you will be greeted by the most curious sight. Once heralded as “Lancaster’s Westminster Abbey” sits the Greenwood Cemetery Mausoleum.
Valley of the Kings
When you first see the magnificent mausoleum, your thoughts immediately leap to ancient Egypt. The nearby river is not the Nile but the Conestoga. The massive granite structure is 140 feet long, 40 feet wide, and 40 feet tall. Like the Pharaohs of old, this mausoleum acts to preserve the remains of Lancaster’s nobles.
The building was designed by famous architect C. Emlen Urban and was dedicated in October 1915. The 6,000-square-foot building cost $85,000 or $2.1 million in today’s dollars.
The Great Sphinx of Lancaster
Two stoic sphinxes guard the mausoleum’s massive bronze-doored entrance. In the Greek tradition, the sphinx has the head of a woman, the haunches of a lion, and the wings of a bird. She is mythicized as treacherous and merciless. Those who cannot answer her riddle suffer a fate typical in such mythological stories, as they are killed and eaten by this ravenous monster.
However, unlike the Greek sphinx, which was a woman, the Egyptian sphinx is typically shown as a man. Furthermore, the Egyptian sphinx was viewed as benevolent but having a ferocious strength similar to the malevolent Greek version. Both were considered guardians and often flank the entrances to temples.
Above the door is a stained glass transom depicting the Cross of Calvary. Even higher on the granite tower are five pillars in front of four stained glass windows with scenes of wreaths and inverted torches. In funerary symbolism, an inverted torch can mean two things. If the torch has a flame, it symbolizes the fire of eternal life and the Christian belief in resurrection. If there is no flame, it means the extinction of life and mourning.
Upon entering the mausoleum, two additional stained glass windows come into view. They represent Christ beckoning the soul to rest and the everflowing River of Life.
Tales from the Crypt
The interior finish of the mausoleum is Vermont marble, and the concrete ceiling is painted and frescoed. The longitudinal aisles are ten feet wide. At the intersection of the corridors are ten compartments enclosed by bronze doors and grills. Each compartment contains six crypts and is intended for use by an entire family. Along the sides of the two corridors are 360 individual tombs, each numbered, with an entrance slab providing room for suitable inscriptions. In observance of superstition, there is no crypt with the number 13 listed.
Each crypt has its own system of automatic ventilation with an inlet and outlet for the passage of air. Also, Chloride of lime is utilized to ensure a thorough absence of any offensive odors.
In 1915, the cost of the crypts ranged from $200 to $300 each. In today’s dollars, it would set you back somewhere between $5,000 and $7,500. I’m unsure if any crypts remain available today.
Greenwood Cemetery was first charted in 1895. It contains more than 15,000 graves. It also has a chapel and crematorium that dates back to 1884. The crematorium is no longer in use. Greenwood Cemetery is currently owned by an outside corporation, StoneMor Partners.
Planning Your Visit
Greenwood Cemetery. This 48-acre property is located at 719 Highland Ave, Lancaster, PA 17603. Click here for directions.
Before You Go
If you do visit, keep in mind that you are in a cemetery and should conduct yourself in an appropriate, respectful manner.
Read the original October 2, 1915, Lancaster, New Era article dedicating the building.
1864 Map of the City of Lancaster, Pennsylvania$21.99 – $25.99