Amid the daily hubbub of managing Minnesota's fifth-largest city, the mayor and city manager of Bloomington make time for a humble duty: signing the title for every burial plot sold in the city's historic cemetery.
In the pioneer section of Bloomington Cemetery rest missionary Gideon Pond, who came to Minnesota in 1834, and Susan, a 10-year-old Dakota girl whose 1856 stone tells the dramatic story of her death with the word "MURDERED." There are monuments to Civil War veterans and pioneers.
Unlike some cities, Bloomington is not content to let its historic cemetery molder. The city is moving to extend the cemetery's life, adding land and perhaps broadening the rules on who can be buried there. Together, those measures could ensure that the cemetery is used for at least 25 more years.
"When the cemetery was established, it was farm folks and families that lived here in the township," City Manager Mark Bernhardson said. "We've come to the point where it's not just mom, dad and the kids and people who lived here and die here.
"Relationships are different; we have a more rapidly changing population. Does that come into play or not? That's what we're exploring."
The cemetery, at 10340 Lyndale Av. S., was established in 1856 by Oak Grove Presbyterian Church. The oldest cemetery records were kept by Pond, who moved to what is now Bloomington in 1842-43 and was one of the church's founders.
The earliest graves are at the cemetery's south side. Indians known by a single name, pioneers who died lingering, painful deaths, and babies are buried there. Early gravestones bear pioneer names now familiar to Bloomington residents in street signs and parks: Bush, Hyland, Stanley, Kell and Bailiff.
When the church moved in 1864, the cemetery became the city's. Originally about 4 acres in size, according to a city history, it has been expanded at least three times and now is 8.5 acres. It has about 4,500 plotted grave sites, some 350 of them still for sale.
If burials continue at the current rate, the cemetery would fill up in about six years. With Bloomington's population aging, family characteristics changing and cremation becoming more popular, it was time to re-examine how things work at the cemetery, said City Clerk Janet Lewis, who has responsibility for its operations.
A city task force brainstormed about how to make the cemetery more financially self-sufficient. The cemetery trust fund had about $1.2 million in it at the end of 2013; each year, the city spends $150,000 to $200,000 for maintenance such as mowing and watering.
Ideas were presented to the City Council late last year. There are plans for a better cemetery road with a turnaround, a new sign, a covered area to offer shelter during bad weather and a columbarium for cremated remains.
Most dramatically, the cemetery could again expand. Bloomington owns 2.5 acres of vacant land just to the north of the cemetery. And the city is interested in purchasing 10 lots between that land and Lyndale Avenue, making the expanded cemetery one big rectangle. The city is already negotiating with one willing property owner.
"We want voluntary acquisition only," Lewis said.
Bernhardson said that ideally, money to buy the lots would come from the cemetery fund, though if properties came on the market all at once, the city could finance the deals and pay itself back from cemetery revenues.
"If we have the opportunity to buy property right now, we will take advantage of that as things become available." he said.
Who should be buried there?
Still left unsettled is the issue of opening the cemetery to more people. Now, burials are open to people who were living in Bloomington when they died, or who had lived in the city for at least 10 years. The spouses of those people as well as their children and the kids' spouses are also eligible.
The city is waiting for City Council members to weigh in on any changes, which could include reducing the residence requirement to five years, including the parents of qualifying residents, or allowing people who don't qualify by residency to pay higher fees for a burial plot or cremation niche. Now, a burial plot costs $1,400 — less, Lewis said, than at many other cemeteries.
Bloomington Cemetery is under review for historic status, which could affect how much change occurs in at least the oldest part of the cemetery, Lewis said. Proposals for change or repairs would have to be submitted to the state.
With about $70,000 a year coming in each year in burial plot sales, Bernhardson said he thinks there is a good chance the cemetery could become self-supporting. But he said the city intends to be flexible about that.
As the son of a small-town Lutheran minister, he said he knows how important rituals surrounding death and places of remembrance are to people.
"This is a long-term service that we made available to the people of Bloomington over the years, and we figured out how to keep it going for a while," Bernhardson said.
"You kind of look at it as a trust. People put their money in and expect perpetual care. We are trying to be sustainable in that."