Scrap metal thieves are sinking to a new low -- stealing bronze flower vases off graves.

More than 100 vases were stolen from Washburn-McReavy's Glen Haven Memorial Gardens in Crystal during the past two weeks, said Jay Larson, cemetery manager and president of the Minnesota Association of Cemeteries. Another 30 were taken from Washburn-McReavy's Crystal Lake Cemetery in Minneapolis, he said. And Larson said officials at Gethsemane Cemetery in New Hope also reported stolen vases, though he wasn't sure how many.

The vases, valued at $200 to $500 each, are targeted because bronze is made primarily of copper, a metal that has been increasing in value and is a favorite target of thieves.

"Good Lord, this is burial ground," said Ken Kersten, who buried his wife in the cemetery last week and then walked through on Wednesday, surprised to find gaping holes where vases used to be. "I won't call it sacred, but it's a spot where there should be a little respect. ... It's aggravating. It's sad."

Kersten said he's not sure whether he'll have a marker with a vase included for his wife's new grave or, when the time comes, for himself. "I don't want my kids burdened with having to spend money down the road for something that's so easy to steal."

The timing of the thefts couldn't be worse: The Memorial Day weekend draws many visitors to cemeteries. The 40-acre Glen Haven Memorial Gardens also is home to the largest veterans memorial in the state.

"We will have thousands of families come through our gates in the next few days," Larson said. "People are coming out, and when they get here, they see the flowers on the ground and their vases have been stolen. Most are very upset that someone has stolen something off their loved one's grave. They take it personally."

The cemetery is giving families plastic vases until bronze replacements can be ordered and delivered, Larson said. The cemetery requires the marker vases to be bronze, and families that choose to replace the stolen vases will be offered new ones at cost, he said.

Larson couldn't remember another time when the cemetery has had this kind of vandalism; smaller numbers of thefts may have occurred in the past, but police weren't called.

"The vases are heavy," Larson said. "They weigh 8 to 10 pounds apiece, so it's not like something you're going to grab a bunch of and run."

Crystal Deputy Chief Stephanie Fealy said police will be increasing their patrols in the area. And Larson said a sign will be posted, warning that anyone found on cemetery property after dusk or 9 p.m. may be arrested.

"You almost hate to do that," Larson said. "The cemetery has a park-like atmosphere." There's no fence, no locked gate. "People come through to walk with their kids and walk their dogs."

It's likely that more cemetery officials will have to wrestle with how to prevent this kind of theft. "It hasn't been a topic that we've had to discuss at our annual convention, but it certainly will be now,'' Larson said. "It hasn't been a problem here in Minnesota because maybe people here have enough respect not to steal things off of people's graves." 612-673-4788 612-673-4482