The suburbs were built with young families in mind. Now, as their populations age, dealing with death has become a new reality.
For a growing number of cities, that means creating space to lay to rest those who have lived and now died there.
Jeralyn Blomquist died at age 65 last fall in the Shoreview home she and her husband, Henry, bought as young newlyweds more than 40 years ago. Her ashes will be placed in a prayer garden and cemetery to be built at St. Odilia Catholic Church. It will be the first cemetery in the Ramsey County city, and a rarity in the metro’s suburbs.
Officials with the Minnesota Association of Cemeteries say they cannot recall the last time a full-service cemetery was created in the Twin Cities. But suburbs are finding ways to accommodate families, like the Blomquists, who wish for loved ones’ remains to be near by.
Several churches are adding columbaria, usually aboveground structures made of stone to house cremated remains. This comes as the percentage of cremations in Minnesota has more than doubled in the past 20 years to around 50 percent. In the Twin Cities, that rate is closer to 60 percent.
Calvary Lutheran Church in Golden Valley has built two columbaria, and All Saints Lutheran in Cottage Grove has one. Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Roseville and King of Kings Lutheran Church in Woodbury will both start building one this year.
Other suburbs, including Apple Valley and Chanhassen, have taken over existing cemeteries and created additional room. At Pioneer Cemetery in Chanhassen, the city is clearing unused land on the cemetery grounds to add 324 grave sites and will build a columbarium.
Mayor Tom Furlong said the expansion is driven by steady demand. “We have lifelong residents of Chanhassen. It is their home,” Furlong said. “This is home, so people are interested in being buried where they live and where they raised their families.”
Debate in Shoreview
In Shoreview, the cemetery at St. Odilia was the parishioners’ idea.
When the church was founded on farmland in 1960, parish leaders envisioned that the land next to it would be used for educational purposes to serve the fast-growing young suburb. St. Odilia started an elementary school in 1961. The remaining land sat unused.
About seven years ago, the parish held town hall-style meetings to brainstorm about the property. A church member suggested a prayer garden for cremated remains. The church added some traditional grave sites at the insistence of the archdiocese.
The Rev. Phil Rask, the church pastor, said he was surprised, “It would have never occurred to me that people wanted a cemetery.” But after some contemplation, it made sense, he said. “It’s a natural ministry of the parish.”
Still, the proposal stirred a vigorous debate at City Hall last spring when it went before the City Council.
Kevin Scroggins, a St. Odilia teacher and member of the church’s cemetery planning committee, recalled the discomfort of some residents about opening a cemetery. One sentiment seemed to be that “people don’t die in the suburbs. You live there,” he said.
Ultimately, the council unanimously approved the preliminary plan. Like Rask, Shoreview officials say the project makes sense.
“I’ve been here for 28 years. I’ve seen the evolution of our city from a fast-growing, young population to a maturing city with a mature population,” said Community Development Director Tom Simonson. “We’ve added a number of senior housing projects in the past decade. … This is something that St. Odilia is trying to do to provide another part of that whole life cycle.”
‘A sacred space’
Construction at St. Odilia could start this summer. The cemetery will have 306 grave sites and columbaria located in a prayer garden will have 3,000 niches that could eventually hold up to 6,000 sets of remains, according to a concept plan. Church members say it’s a project that will span a century.
There will be no fences or raised markers. Landscaping in the prayer garden will include bushes and flowers to delineate spaces. The site will also have a pond with benches and a rain garden that St. Odilia’s schoolchildren can help maintain.
“We are creating a sacred space where you can slow down and pray. There is a hunger for that,” said Scroggins.
Kathy Stechmann appreciates the new site. She and her husband, Eric, moved to Shoreview in 1974 and raised their son there. He was a software engineer and she was a teacher, When he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, he told Kathy he wanted to be part of St. Odilia’s prayer garden. He died in April 2011.
Kathy Stechmann also will place the cremated remains of their daughter, Annika, who died at birth in 1983. She kept them with her because she never felt right placing them in a cemetery isolated and alone. She had a brother who died in infancy and he’s buried in South Dakota, far from any family.
“I think about nobody ever being able to go there or thinking about him,” she said.
St. Odilia will allow her to create a place to honor her family where they lived and loved.
“I know I will go there often,” Stechmann said.
More than a dozen families have ashes to be placed at the St. Odilia site.
For Henry Blomquist, the city where he and Jeralyn built their life together and raised their three children is the right place for her to be.
“She lived in Shoreview. She worked in Shoreview. She went to church in Shoreview. She shopped in Shoreview. She said, ‘If Shoreview doesn’t have it, I don’t need it.’ This is our community,” he said. “Your memories are what it’s all about.”