Decoding Design

Chicago funeral home design lets the light in

Posting in Design

Funeral homes tend to be so...funereal. But clad in glass and Jerusalem stone, the new, airy home of Chicago Jewish Funerals breaks the funeral home mold.

At first glance, you might think it's a modern office building or retail store. But you'd be dead wrong.

In the north Chicago suburb of Skokie, a new 15,000 square foot funeral home is emblematic of a trend toward bright, open designs and away from the traditionally dark, somber funeral home.

The building, which opened in September, is Chicago Jewish Funerals' third and newest suburban location, reports the Chicago Tribune.

The architect Joseph Alexander, of the Chicago-based Alexander & Associates, employed a modern aesthetic for the design. Much of the facade is composed of white aluminum panels, glass, as well as Jerusalem stone, an off-white sedimentary stone used widely in Jewish ceremonial art and structures, including the Western Wall.

The building makes much more liberal use of natural daylighting than a conventional funeral home does--though Alexander had to be sensitive to the fact that it's still a solemn, sacred space. The glass is insulated to keep outside noises (read: traffic) outside and some of the passageways are protected from view to conceal the mechanics of transporting the deceased to and from the facility, for example.

And the facts that Alexander is Jewish, that is his father was also an architect and that a cousin of his has links to the funeral industry, put him in a unique position to design the facility with an insider's eye.

The structure's ground floor includes two chapels -- one large and one smaller -- with offices on the second story. A mikvah, a deep tub used to bathe the body as part of a special  Jewish ritual, is located in the basement, along with other facilities used to prepare the body for services.

And just outside the building, literally inches away, is a small outbuilding equipped with a television monitor. It was built to provide Kohanim, a category of Jewish priests that are not supposed to approach a dead body, a way to view the funeral services from outside the building. Without this structure, they would have to stand outside, or wait inside their parked cars (and not get to view the services, of course).

The intention behind the trend toward brighter, airier funeral homes is two-fold: to imbue memorial services with a more celebratory atmosphere and to create spaces that lend themselves to multiple uses.

These new facilities portray themselves as community centers, and some even rent out spaces for decidedly more upbeat events, such as anniversaries, birthdays and even weddings.

David Jacobson, the founder of Chicago Jewish Funerals, calls the new Skokie facility "a Jewish building that happens to be a funeral home" where "the penchant for clean-lined simplicity and natural light has supplanted decoration and darkness as the guiding principles of design."

Photos: Alexander & Associates

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure