By Laurie Blake and Mary Jane Smetanka

Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — Dozens of graves dating to the 1800s now lie next to soccer fields in a Minnetonka, Minn., park.

Tucked under a grove of tall cedar trees, they are the final resting place of some of the area’s early Czech settlers. Today, suburban development surrounds the site, and cemetery board members who once tended the graves are gone.

Now, care of the little cemetery has fallen to the city.

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Shady Oak Lake Cemetery is just one of thousands of small cemeteries in Minnesota, and one of many private cemeteries, that are winding up in public hands when there is no one left to watch over them.

The duty might seem an unlikely one for a city.

But Minnetonka, Eden Prairie and Apple Valley are examples of cities that have adopted cemeteries at the urging of private associations that could not maintain them anymore.

In Minnetonka, the old cemetery has become a park. In Apple Valley, residents voted to build a historic burial ground into a larger city cemetery.

But cities won’t assume responsibility for every graveyard: Minnetonka declined to take on long-term maintenance for another small cemetery because it did not seem in the public interest.

Loss of interest

Most of the cemeteries in Minnesota are small operations run by volunteer boards, said Ron Gjerde, secretary-treasurer of the Minnesota Association of Cemeteries. When board members die, there often is no one else to step in.

"As these cemeteries fill up and are no longer active, and if endowment funds aren’t enough to take care of the property, they’ve got some problems," Gjerde said.

An example of what can happen when no one is willing to take over a cemetery can be found in the former Rosedale Cemetery in Roseville in the 1990s. Most of the board that oversaw the five-acre burial site quit. Disgusted relatives of people buried there began bringing lawnmowers on weekends to trim the plots.

The years of neglect finally ended when Roseville and Ramsey County officials agreed to establish a permanent fund for cemetery maintenance, contributing $30,000 each. The eventual buyer of the cemetery, the Minnesota Islamic Cemetery Association, contributed $12,000. A Roseville official says there have been no problems since.

Cities do a service when they take over a distressed cemetery, Gjerde said. "They’re saving it, protecting the heritage there and making sure it doesn’t fall into disrepair."

Minnetonka acquired the Shady Oak Lake Cemetery on Shady Oak Road in 2003 and closed plot sales in 2005. The graves are maintained as part of Lone Lake Park. "It’s a very natural setting," said Dave Johnson, director of recreation services for Minnetonka.

Minnetonka declined, however, to adopt the Groveland Cemetery on Minnetonka Boulevard because the association was looking for long-term care and there wasn’t a clear community benefit, Johnson said.

The decision with Shady Oak was easier because the 1.5-acre graveyard came with an unused 1.5 acres that could be turned into parkland, as well as a perpetual-care fund valued at $99,000 and a set of historical records, some written in Czech, documenting some of the city’s founding families.

With maintenance costs at about $5,000 a year, Johnson expects the care fund to last about 20 years.

Costs

When a city is asked to take over a cemetery, costs are a key concern. In Apple Valley, the trustees of Lebanon Cemetery voted in 1992 to give the two-acre site to the city if it agreed to expand and maintain it. The cemetery dated to 1863, and for 135 years it had been owned by an association of people who bought the plots. But the city was reluctant to take on the cost of taking care of it, said Alan Kohls, head of the city cemetery advisory committee.

In 1997, Apple Valley residents approved a $795,000 bond issue to buy eight more acres of land for the cemetery, and the city now operates it through its public works department — and is bringing it into the 21st century.

To accommodate the growing demand for places to put cremated remains — the portion of Minnesotans who choose cremation has increased from 11.4 percent in 1986 to 40.4 percent in 2006 — Lebanon now has a monument for ashes and plans to add another one this year. It also offers boulders with drilled cores to hold cremated remains.

Eden Prairie took over the two-acre Pleasant Hill Cemetery on Pioneer Trail in 1987. The site, established in 1854, was a gift to the city and came with a perpetual care fund that allows it to operate without tax dollars, said Stuart Fox, city parks manager. The parks department now sells plots.

Eden Prairie has just finished a cemetery task force report that recommends expanding the cemetery and considering monuments for cremated remains. It also recommends increasing plot prices from $400 to $500 for city residents and from $600 to $650 for nonresidents, Fox said. Of 1,390 grave sites, about 474 remain to be sold.