Myrna Kragness carefully selected a potted plant full of multicolored flowers for her husband's grave in Brooklyn Center. A week before Memorial Day, her grandsons helped her wrap wire around the pot four times to secure it to the plant stand.

When she came back last week to water the plant, it was gone.

"It's so sickening because you bring [the flowers] out there to remember the people that have passed," said Kragness, who was married for 23 years. "It's just heartbreaking."

Around Memorial Day, many family members discover that the expensive potted plants they placed at loved ones' graves are targets for thieves.

Cemetery managers across the metro said the problem is widespread, especially after holidays when gravesites are filled with fresh flowers and plants.

At the Mound Cemetery in Brooklyn Center, where Kragness' husband, John, and mother, Estella Green, are buried, thieves have caused cemetery manager Dan Kantar to take action.

He asked Brooklyn Center police to drive through on a regular basis, and he installed more security lights.

One of the oddest stories Kantar has heard is from family members who have placed flowers or plants at a grave only to find them stolen and relocated to another grave in the cemetery.

"We can't do anything about that because we didn't see them do it," Kantar said.

Even at large fenced cemeteries with security guards, such as the 250-acre Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis, thieves still find ways to go undetected, said Lakewood's President Ron Gjerde.

"We all have to deal with this, regardless of what size we are or what precautions we take," he said.

Gjerde, who is also director of the Minnesota Association of Cemeteries, said he thinks people justify taking flowers because they assume the cemeteries will throw them away. His family put roses on his father-in-law's grave one year and returned to find them at a nearby grave.

"I was in total disbelief," he said.

Thieves hard to ward off

Each cemetery has different rules for what decorations are allowed, and eventually abandoned planters, faded artificial flowers or loose bouquets will be removed, especially after the various holidays.

Cemetery managers encourage family members to buy in-ground concrete planters for grave sites. After the theft of the Memorial Day flowers at her husband's grave -- and the theft this year of Mother's Day flowers from her mother's grave -- Kragness said she is going to spend $250 to get permanent planters.

It's worth the money, she said, because she had spent $60 on the flowers that were stolen. For now, she has placed less expensive geraniums at the graves.

"You get to the point where you don't want to buy anything really nice," Kragness said. "If they're going to steal geraniums, then they'll steal anything."

In Bloomington, the city-owned cemetery had a problem with thieves a couple years ago, but so far this year officials haven't heard of any cases.

"Some of these people are spending a fair amount of money for a plant," said Jim Eiler, the city's assistant maintenance supervisor. "We encourage people to use wire ties, but it might not help depending on how motivated [the thief] is and how nice of a plant people bring out."

At the Elmhurst Cemetery in St. Paul, Jerry and Linda Krieger maintain the grounds and live on site, but they still get thieves stealing flowers and other gravesite adornments.

"They usually take from the graves that are closer to the road," Linda said.

Several cemetery managers said it is hard to determine whether people are coming in from outside the grounds to steal or if the thefts involve people who are already visiting the cemetery. State law prohibits people from taking any plant or grave artifact from a cemetery.

Decorations can make a mess

Especially after holidays, cemetery crews have to remove plastic flowers, glass vases and metal ornaments because of the hazard to mowers.

Several years ago at Elmhurst, a worker who was mowing was pierced in the leg with a piece of metal from an artificial flower.

This week, Kantar pointed out glass vases that had tipped over in the wind and broken. Certain ethnic groups also bring in food, such as the chicken leg, Snickers bar, brownies and apples he cleared from graves this week.

He doesn't want to discourage people from honoring their loved ones, but he advises them that there's no guarantee that items will be safe. One cemetery visitor padlocked her potted plant to a stand, but he said he wasn't sure whether that helped or not.

"We don't want to eliminate the charm of a small cemetery," Kantar said.

Lora Pabst • 612-673-4628