Oakwood Mortuary Chapel

Oakwood Cemetery, Syracuse

The rural cemetery movement began in America in 1835 with the  Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston. The movement came to Syracuse in 1859 with establishment of the Oakwood Cemetery in, what was at that time, farm land beyond the city proper.

Because these cemeteries had to accommodate services, crematory functions and the storage of remains during frozen conditions, they required the creation of a new building type: the mortuary chapel.

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(Photo: Eric Payne)

Oakwood mortuary chapel

The Oakwood mortuary chapel and receiving vault was designed by J. L. Silsbee Construction and completed by contractor William Dickison in 1879. It was constructed in a gothic style using Onondaga limestone. There is a large porte cochere over the entry and large ornamented chimneys marking the location of the crematorium at the rear of the chapel. The interior is marked with timber-work framing and wooden ceilings. The receiving vault, with 200 cells for remains storage, is located in the basement. 

Though there have been efforts to preserve the structure, the chapel is in a severely deteriorated condition. Some stone repair and a new asphalt shingle roof indicate that the building has been cared for. The original slate and tile roof as well as original windows have been removed and the structure has suffered through years of exposure to the elements.

The Oakwood Mortuary Chapel is one of the earliest surviving examples of this unique building type, and one of the few surviving examples of Silsbee's religious architecture. But it isn't Silsbee's only mortuary chapel. In 1899, Silsbee was asked by the wife of friend Horation N. May to design a mortuary chapel as a tribute to her husband at Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago. This exuberantly detailed building still stands and its plan is almost identical to that of the Oakwood Chapel.