The fading headstones peppering Minneapolis’ oldest surviving cemetery received a face-lift this weekend, thanks to a plucky crew of “creepy” volunteers.

A group called Creepy Girl Travels, which highlights alternative destinations for counterculture travelers, brought together about 15 people on Saturday for a “Gravestone Cleaning and Picnic” at Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery off Lake Street near Cedar Avenue.

They grew interested in volunteering after attending a recent Cinema in the Cemetery event, which raises funds to help restore the steel and limestone fence surrounding the property.

“Because it’s around Halloween, I think it makes things that we’re interested in a little more socially acceptable,” said Allison Landers, who runs the group.

Armed with spray bottles, toothbrushes and Popsicle sticks (for more gentle cleaning), the crew spent several hours cleaning headstones and clearing away grass that had grown over others.

“It was really powerful,” Landers said. “It was really emotional, too.”

The inhabitants of Pioneers and Soldiers are less well known than those buried at Lakewood Cemetery, the final resting place of Minneapolis’ politicians and industrialists. Its graves — the earliest dates to 1861 — include veterans of the War of 1812 and the Civil War, as well as the city’s early black and immigrant residents.

More than half the 20,000 graves belong to children, according to Friends of the Cemetery.

Volunteers uncovered several headstones marking children’s graves, some of which had become hidden by grass.

They cleaned moss off the headstone of Mable Melander, buried in 1888 at only 1 year old, which was topped by an eroding lamb carving. Other targets included the headstone of a man who could not be buried in a Catholic cemetery because he hanged himself.

Susan Hunter-Weir, who chairs the Friends of the Cemetery organization, said there have been headstone cleanings in the past performed by Eagle Scouts and descendants of the cemetery’s inhabitants.

She said Landers did a good deal of research on the best way to clean the headstones. “She was very very serious about it,” Hunter-Weir said. “They did a great job.”

Hunter-Weir said they hope to do it again next year and invite more people to participate. “We’ve got a lot of work,” she said.


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