Rust never sleeps in Anoka cemetery

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 23, 2011 - 8:58 PM

Well water drawn to keep the grass green at Calvary Cemetery contains minerals that have discolored just about everything else.

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Ken Stack said he is dismayed by the damage mineral-laden well water has done to the stones marking family members’ graves.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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At one of Minnesota's oldest cemeteries, rust never sleeps.

Gravestones, signs and even tree trunks are stained with rust at Calvary Cemetery in Anoka. Once-white marble tombstones have been discolored by a sprinkling system that sprays mineral-rich well water over the grounds -- and over nearly everything else.

The rust has visitor Ken Stack seeing red.

"After we talked about the problem last year, I thought perhaps there might be some effort to clean the stones and fix or stop using the well," said Stack, who first noticed the problem two years ago and has about a dozen relatives buried there. "Instead, they ran the water last summer as if there were no problem. Now the headstones and footstones are much worse. The trees are even stained red, as well as the asphalt pavement running through the cemetery."

The Church of St. Stephen, which owns the cemetery, is aware of one or two other complaints about the rust-colored coating on the tombstones, said administrator Jay Gish, who recently discussed the matter with Stack.

"The place looked bad," Gish said. "We didn't know this would happen. It's super-important for us to take care of this."

Experts say the discoloration of gravestones is common in Western states with limestone problems. Most cemeteries take precautions, according to Ron Gjerde, secretary-treasurer of the Minnesota Association of Cemeteries. For example, Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis is so concerned about white-streaking limestone particles in its watering system that it does not allow dark granite monuments, Gjerde said.

Long history in Anoka

Calvary Cemetery was founded in 1856 -- two years before Minnesota became a state. A rock wall at the front of the cemetery along Hwy. 10 was built early last century by Alfred Keillor, a relative of Anoka native Garrison Keillor.

Well aware of the cemetery's history, the St. Stephen's staff has posted a number of signs and rules throughout the graveyard: Only fresh-cut flowers are permitted in vases between April and September. Wilted flowers will be removed. No artificial decorations are allowed. Winter decorations must be gone by April 1. Shrubs cannot be planted without the administrator's permission.

"We're very sensitive to the cemetery's needs," Gish said.

'Insult to all involved'

But not sensitive enough, countered Stack, who said discolored monuments are an "insult to all involved."

"What they fail to grasp is that the stone that marks a grave is the connection we have with the one buried there," said Stack, whose father is interred at Calvary. "We look at the stone and we think of the person."

Gish said the church plans to address the rust problem "prior to starting irrigation next spring." He said the cemetery may switch to city water for sprinkling, if the church board approves the additional cost.

Cleaning individual gravestones may be too labor intensive to be practical, Gish said, but he's not ruling it out. He said there may be a product that will clean the gravestones.

But there's no guarantee cleaning products will work on memorials made of porous marble or absorbent light-colored granite, said Todd Nagel, owner of the Murphy Granite Carving Co. in Richmond, Minn.

"I deal with problems all over the country, and it's almost always the water," Nagel said. "With the rust, you have an added problem: You're watering the cemetery grounds with well water that creates the rust. And then the sun bakes the rust right into those light gray granite monuments, making it even harder to remove."

Gjerde said rust discoloration is rarely reported in Minnesota. Other cemeteries disdain sprinkling systems because of rust potential -- or they hope the rust will be washed away by an occasional rain. The unusually dry summer may have added to Calvary Cemetery's woes.

Stack said he visits Calvary Cemetery three times a year. His mother, 92 and living in Oregon, will be buried there one day.

"I understand the church wants to take care of the cemetery," he said. "But dry grass is not as bad as defaced monuments."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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