As constituents go, they’re not likely to run off anywhere or to complain. They don’t have a lot of lobbyists pushing their interests at the Capitol.
But the inhabitants of the state’s cemeteries, particularly those in abandoned or neglected properties, may soon find themselves the objects of renewed attention.
A database has identified 5,876 cemeteries across Minnesota, but the number is likely much larger — in areas adjacent to rural churches taken by development, or in overgrown woods, or long-forgotten in farm fields.
A bill in the Legislature would require local governments to take responsibility for abandoned cemeteries if a veteran is buried there. It also would establish an adopt-a-cemetery program similar to the one used for highways and require the state Historical Society to update its inventory of state cemeteries, abandoned cemeteries and burial grounds.
While the bill’s wording is far from final, the intent of the proposed legislation is to take a first step in what is likely to be a multiyear effort to get a better handle on the number of graveyards out there, particularly those that have become neglected or abandoned, ones the poet Robert Frost called “disused.”
“Almost by definition, an abandoned cemetery doesn’t have any group looking out for them,” said the measure’s sponsor, Rep. Bob Dettmer, R-Forest Lake, at a recent hearing on the bill.
“Minnesotans are ready to take care of those who have helped build the state.”
A 2011 investigation of “unrecorded” historical cemeteries in Minnesota found that graveyards ranged from one burial site to hundreds, with conditions ranging from “conscientious upkeep to complete neglect.” It also determined that some are so neglected that they are in danger of being lost, with written records providing the only remaining aboveground evidence of their existence.
“The basic thing is that we should be respectful of people who cannot speak for themselves,” said David Kelliher, director of public policy and community relations for the Minnesota Historical Society.
One organization may be the beneficiary of the newfound interest.
The Duluth-based Northern Bedrock Historic Preservation Corps was started in 2011 to help preserve and restore Minnesota’s aging stock of historic structures and landscapes and to teach young adults skills in the preservation trades.
Three crews of six participate on projects for six months at a time, and 20 to 30 percent of their work now involves cemetery restoration. The crews, who learn techniques to clean and restore without causing damage, have worked on cemeteries in places such as Rushford, Duluth, Hastings, Minneapolis, Slayton and Ely.
Besides learning restoration techniques, Northern Bedrock Executive Director Rolf Hagberg said, participants have developed an appreciation for the history revealed in the stones they have uncovered — like years when children seem to have been taken by a flu epidemic or the unusual number of young women who may have died in childbirth.
“They look at the stones and they somehow connect to these people that they’re working from,” he said. “The stories of these people evolve.”
As the process picks up steam, Hagberg said a greater awareness of the delicate nature of the restoration may keep people from taking matters into their own hands.
“You don’t want people grabbing the bleach bottle and the wire brushes from under the kitchen sink and ruining these stones,” he said. “There’s really techniques in how to do it.”