Crypts That Keep On Giving


With a starting price of $2,000 per square foot, it will be by far the city’s costliest address. And its most exclusive--residency is strictly by invitation and based on one’s personal goodness and contribution to the community. On the downside, space is available in one standard lot: 8 feet by 3 feet with a 2 1/2-foot ceiling. On the upside, utilities are included and ownership is guaranteed for eternity.

Beneath the Spanish marble floor of the almost-finished Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is a mausoleum that promises to be the most prestigious Catholic burial place in the city, if not the country. With almost 1,300 crypts and 5,000 niches for cremated remains, it is one of the largest cathedral burial vaults in the world, and certainly the grandest premeditated design. The Basilica in St. Peter’s may have more graves beneath its floor, but that’s because it was built above an existing cemetery.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Feb. 9, 2002 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 9, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Cathedral architect--A story in Friday’s Section A on the crypts beneath the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles incorrectly spelled the name of the cathedral architect. His name is Jose Rafael Moneo.

Many Catholic cathedrals and churches have small crypts, often beneath the altar, for bishops and other notable clergy and perhaps a few lay people deemed extraordinary by the archdiocese: kings or queens, perhaps a wealthy family that paid for the building, a great artist. But no American cathedral has what amounts to a full-blown mausoleum in its basement. St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, for example, has but 14 crypts; all the former New York bishops are buried there, as well as Pierre Toussaint, a former slave who died in 1853 and is a candidate for canonization.


Plans call for the remains of five of California’s bishops to be interred in Our Lady; they are to be moved from their current resting place in East L.A.’s Calvary Cemetery when the new cathedral downtown on Temple Street is consecrated in the fall. St. Vibiana, the patroness of the archdiocese of Los Angeles who also rests at Calvary, will also be interred beneath the cathedral. She will have her own chapel, which is adjacent to the mausoleum.

But many crypts will be made available to select supporters of the archdiocese, including those who made substantial donations to the construction of the cathedral.

The archdiocese says it does not have any sort of “A list” yet. But officials acknowledge that major donors to the cathedral could be considered. They include Sir Daniel Donohue, head of the Dan Murphy Foundation, which contributed the initial $25 million; Rupert Murdoch and his former wife, Anna, who gave $10 million; Betsy Bloomingdale; Roy and Patty Disney; former Mayor Richard Riordan; former Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley; comedian Bob Hope; and former talk show host Merv Griffin. Many of them--Murdoch, Roy Disney, O’Malley, Hope and Riordan--were awarded papal knighthoods, the highest honor a pope can bestow on a meritorious lay person, in 1998.

Anyone can request crypt burial, but the selection rests with the archbishop, now Cardinal Roger M. Mahony. Those chosen do not have to be Catholic; church policy throughout the diocese allows an individual who is married to a Catholic or who comes from a Catholic family to be buried in consecrated ground, and that will hold true in the cathedral. But those invited will have to pay for the honor. Considerably.

There is not yet a price list for the resting places, but officials say they are looking at the crypts as an ongoing fund-raiser. Revenues would go into an endowment, which, they hope, will pay for the upkeep and maintenance of the cathedral. How much will that be?

“Until we have at least a year up and running, we really won’t know,” said Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the archdiocese of Los Angeles. Ballpark figures, based on the budget of New York’s St. Patrick’s, run about $3.5 million a year. According to Tamberg, the suggested donations for the crypts will be based on the needs of the endowment.


“Let’s put it this way,” said another church official. “The crypts cost us about $20,000 apiece. So they aren’t going to be cheap.” A starting price of $50,000, he added, would not be unreasonable.

For space in the semiprivate chapels, of which there are six, or a crypt near the 26 stained-glass windows and lunettes brought over from the original cathedral, the cost will be considerably more. The four crypts in the sarcophagus directly under the altar are the most exalted: When the name of one millionaire was mentioned, it was jocularly suggested by one church official that he could not afford such an honor.

Like a ‘Sky Box’ for Deceased VIPs

There is some uneasiness arising about commercial considerations in such a sacred place. “It’s the ecclesiastical equivalent of a sky box,” said one theologian who declined to be named. On the other hand, making the cathedral self-supporting certainly is an answer for those who contend that the construction money could be better spent aiding the poor and the suffering.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Lawrence Cunningham, a professor of theology at Notre Dame University. “So many people are against spending money on cathedrals that [selling crypts] makes a lot of sense.”

Neither the price of a crypt nor those eligible for burial will be officially decided until after the cathedral’s completion. “We need to finish fund-raising for the construction before we get onto the marketing end of things,” Tamberg said.

And, he added, it’s important to remember that the cathedral is built to last hundreds of years, so the crypts will not be filled quickly. Still, people already are asking how they can reserve a space for themselves or family members. The answer is, they can’t. “Folks keep asking me, ‘How do I get in there?’ ” said one official. “I say, ‘Well, first, you have to die.’ ”

Throughout Europe, the crypts of the great cathedrals are tourist stops, often requiring an extra fee to view the marble slabs and sarcophagi within which lie the remains of queens and geniuses, inventors and stewards, the holy and the lauded, and the rulers and the rich.

Westminster Abbey has its poets corner; 71 kings and queens are buried beneath St. Denis in Paris; Michelangelo rests in Santa Croce in Florence; and the crypt of Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, one of the largest in the British Isles, was recently refurbished to accommodate receptions and other gatherings.

But visions of Europe’s mournful cherubim and cascading marble wreaths do little to prepare a visitor for the crypts beneath Our Lady of the Angels. Just as the cathedral itself challenges assumptions of ecclesiastical design, so do its crypts, beginning with their sheer number.

“Los Angeles always does things in a big way,” said Cunningham, who expressed surprise at the crypts’ capaciousness.

Many modern cathedral builders intentionally left space in their crypts for dignitaries. But Cunningham said he could not think of another cathedral that used, or planned to use, its crypts as a funding base. “I’ve never heard of a link quite that intimate before,” he said.

The original plans for the cathedral did not include such a large burial vault. Digging into the ground adds millions to the budget of such a project, and originally the archdiocese settled for the chapel and a utility area beneath the vestry. But two years ago, when it was decided that underground seismic work was necessary, officials leaped at the chance to create the second floor, and Mahony soon gave the plan his approval.

Until the crypts are occupied by the noteworthy and the saintly, pilgrims visiting the crypt of Our Lady will be drawn to two things: the chapel of St. Vibiana and the windows from her former cathedral. A stairway behind the baptistery of the main cathedral leads to the crypts. To the right of the final step is the chapel, designed by cathedral architect Raphael Mineo, where Mass can be said or visitors may pray or meditate.

A Ray of Light for St. Vibiana

The far wall of the chapel is of the same alabaster that forms the cathedral windows; behind it will lie the sarcophagus of St. Vibiana. It is the only portion of this basement floor bathed in natural light, from a skylight cut a story above--a tribute to the saint, who will lie almost directly across from the entrance to the crypts.

The mausoleum follows the same cruciform floor plan as the cathedral above it, acting as a symbolic foundation for the living church. From the entrance just past the chapel, one looks down the main aisle, which bisects the space to the far wall where a back-lighted stained-glass window depicts Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Just in front of that window, and also visible from the entrance, is a four-person sarcophagus situated beneath the altar in the cathedral above.

In addition to being an underground mirror of the cathedral itself, the mausoleum was also designed to accommodate the 26 windows and lunettes salvaged from St. Vibiana’s, which was damaged in the Northridge earthquake.

“It was the first thing they decided,” said Walter Judson of L.A.’s Judson Studios, which removed, cleaned and restored the windows.

The windows, which depict such biblical scenes as the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Ascension and the Resurrection, were put in shadow boxes and lighted by color-corrected fluorescent lights that shine through plastic diffusers. The result is as close to natural daylight as is technologically possible underground, which was very important given the crucial role natural light plays in the design of the cathedral.

“We paid a lot of attention to lighting,” said John Gary, who oversaw the design of the crypts. “There are soft vaults in the ceiling and portions are lit at the edges, which, with the windows, gives the psychological effect of natural light.”

Mineo approved all plans for the crypts, but he did not design them. John Stuart Todd, a Houston design firm specializing in mortuaries, came up with the original plans. Lead architect Barry Boudreaux worked toward creating a space that was both consistent with the overall design and particular to its purpose.

“One of the early design concepts was to use the beautiful windows to incorporate the old and the new,” Gary said. “But we tried to stay true to the cathedral. It’s very clean, no applied ornamentation.”

Indeed, the lines of the walls, the rows of crypts--five high and as many as 20 across depending on the length of wall--the urn niches, and even the small semiprivate alcoves are sleek and bright.

The color palette is consistent as well. Marble artisan Louie Carnevale designed the floors and steps for both the cathedral and the crypts, as well as the walls of the crypt. He used a light-colored Spanish marble in both, although the marble of the mausoleum comes from a different quarry and is creamier, closer in hue to the stone shutters on the crypts, which are French limestone.

Ornamentation Subject to Church Approval

Even the sarcophagus under the altar will be simple and subdued in design, although that, and the faces of any of the crypts, may change once names are engraved and ornamentation added by the families. The niches for the cremation urns also have stone shutters that can be engraved. Strictures against cremation were loosened by the Second Vatican Council in 1963.

Any changes to the crypts would have to be approved by the archdiocese. “It’s like any subdivision,” Gary said. “You need to have a general design, a master plan.”

The altar sarcophagus is the premier space and, as yet, no one will venture a guess as to who might be invited to be buried there. (Mahony, a natural choice, has, according to Tamberg, already declined; he is content to be among the other bishops for whom spaces are reserved to the right of the altar crypt.)

The entrance of the mausoleum is flanked by two alcoves in which stained-glass windows are surrounded by full-length crypts--”sofa coffins” in which the body is interred lengthwise, rather than headfirst as in most of the crypts. The main window depicting the Good Shepherd is likewise surrounded by crypts.

“I think any of the spaces by the windows would be considered premium,” Gary said.

The cremation niches come in a range of locations and positioning. On the right side of the burial vault are several rooms devoted to niches, one containing a large, free-standing cross in which two layers of urns can be housed. In several of the semiprivate rooms, there are niches amid the crypts, giving family members an option in form and price. The niches, said officials, will obviously be less expensive than the crypts, although, again, the cost will depend on the location. They, too, will be by invitation only.

And who knows? A hundred years hence, European tourists may be paying a few extra dollars to see Southern California’s saints and scholars, its rulers and elite. The region might not have any kings, but undoubtedly there’ll be a celebrity or two. This is L.A., after all.