Standing near the gate of Cottage Grove Cemetery with a dozen other protesters on Monday evening, Laura Edlefsen held up a round stone engraved with the words “In remembrance of my mother’s eternal light and love.”
It had sat on her mother’s grave until recently, when new cemetery management and board members decided to enforce regulations about how families could and could not decorate their loved one’s headstones and markers.
“I found this in the dumpster,” Edlefsen said about the plaque as other protesters scrolled through their phones for photos of mementos that they also retrieved from the cemetery after staff removed them.
The policy change was put in place last spring. Ken Otto, the cemetery’s superintendent, said the cemetery sent out about 250 letters in April, telling families with plots that rules about what decor would be allowed had been clarified and would soon be enforced. Because of outdated addresses, he said many of the letters were returned.
In June, the now-banned items — everything from statues to rocks to beer cans and whiskey bottles — were removed and lined up near a shed, where they remained for up to 40 days for families to pick up. The leftovers were either donated to local thrift store or tossed, Otto said.
“We did everything we could to make the transition as easy as possible,” he said. “We understand that some people would be upset about it but this was a necessity that we had to do.”
The rocks and toy cars, even bouquets with wire wrappings, left by visiting families made maintenance more difficult and expensive, but also more dangerous, he said.
“Those items can be hazardous if they get caught up in a mower,” he said.
Janet Ambright, one of the organizers of the protest, said she understands that concern.
But the plants that she has in a permitted plant stand at her husband’s grave won’t last in wintertime, she said. She’d like to add a solar light in the shape of a Vikings football helmet, but solar lights aren’t permitted.
“I do understand what they don’t want,” she said. “But I don’t understand why we can’t talk out a compromise. That’s all we want.”
She’ll be able to express those concerns at a mid-September meeting with the cemetery board, which will be open to all families with grave sites.
“The issue here is that we don’t have new rules, we just clarified the rules we do have,” said Michael Sharkey, attorney for the Cottage Grove Cemetery Association. Several signs are now posted around the cemetery outlining what is allowed (Christmas wreaths during the holiday season, eternal lights, plants or flowers in a pot stand or flowers planted in certain areas around the marker) and what isn’t (shepherd hooks, knickknacks, solar lights, balloons, toys, wind chimes, pinwheels, breakable decorations, plastic flowers, decorative rocks).
“We are trying to preserve the beauty and tranquillity of the cemetery while also trying to balance the right of the people grieving,” Sharkey said.
But for Laura Boggess, who returned from vacation in July to find that rocks from her husband’s family farm were removed from his grave, the rules feel disrespectful.
“I don’t think they have a right to tell me how to grieve,” she said. “This shouldn’t be a depressing place but now I feel like it looks like one.”