Crystal Lake Cemetery’s lush greenery and manicured lawns earned it praise more than a century ago as an “ideal city of the dead.”
Fewer people these days are choosing to spend eternity in this enclave of north Minneapolis.
Owners of the 130-year-old cemetery, the second-largest in Minneapolis, recently offered to donate it to the city after being charged for a nearby road construction project. They say the property has been losing about $300,000 annually for several years largely due to maintenance costs and fewer burials. “If you would like to receive Crystal Lake Cemetery as a gift, from my family, we’ll give it to you free of charge with all documentation,” Bill McReavy, president of Washburn-McReavy, which owns the 140-acre cemetery, said at a recent city hearing.
The city says it is not considering the offer. And McReavy has assured concerned families that his company intends to continue taking good care of the property.
But McReavy’s predicament illustrates the challenge some cemeteries face as more people choose to be cremated — while others would just prefer burial in the suburbs. About 67 percent of deaths in Minnesota this year will result in cremation, up from 49 percent nine years ago, according to projections by the National Funeral Directors Association.
A number of metro cities have adopted cemeteries that struggled to stay solvent.
Acquired by Washburn-McReavy in 2005, Crystal Lake is one of four cemeteries it owns, and the only one losing money. The others are in northeast Minneapolis, Bloomington and Crystal. McReavy says his company accepts that Crystal Lake runs at a deficit, and has an obligation to maintain it to high standards.
“My point is this: It’s not fair for us to have to pay an $80,000 assessment when we don’t make a penny,” McReavy said. “I wouldn’t say anything to anyone, except for that when [the city wants] us to suddenly start making special payments, and we’re already going backwards, then it’s time to say, ‘You know what? Time out.’ ”
Asked why the city would pick up an unprofitable arm of this business, he replied, “I don’t disagree with that.”
Crystal Lake’s size is second only in Minneapolis to Lakewood Cemetery, the city’s most prominent burial ground. While less monumental than Lakewood, it’s a gently undulating landscape of mature trees and modest headstones. Markers for veterans of the Spanish-American War are among the reminders of its long history.
Roberta Englund, who until recently ran two adjacent neighborhood organizations, said Crystal Lake has always been an excellent neighbor. She’d rather not see the city take it over, saying City Hall struggles to manage the land it already owns on the North Side.
“I can’t think of a worse outcome for the … management of the cemetery or for the neighborhoods than to have the city in control in any way of that amount of land,” Englund said.
McReavy said maintenance costs include cutting the grass, removing snow, security, and other incidental expenses like tree removal, road rehab and fence repair. Cemeteries generate money from interment fees and property and monument sales. There were about 317 interments at Crystal Lake last year, which McReavy said is low relative to the size of the property, compared to 597 interments 20 years ago. It did turn a slight profit several years ago, he said.
City spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie wrote in an e-mail that the city is not considering taking ownership of the cemetery. The city calculates assessments based on a property’s square footage. Two years ago it assessed Crystal Lake $274,000 for a reconstruction of 42nd Avenue. This year, public works staff recommended an $80,000 assessment on Crystal Lake for resurfacing streets north of the cemetery.
Not all cemeteries are assessed for infrastructure projects, however. It depends whether the owner is a nonprofit or for-profit organization.
The city isn’t a stranger to cemetery ownership. In the 1920s, it took over Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery on Lake Street — the city’s oldest surviving burial ground — after years of neglect.
Some ailing cemeteries without large institutional owners turn to local governments. The Worthington Cemetery Association recently had to seek help from the city of Worthington and Nobles County in order to keep operating.
“We were not going to be able to make payroll, basically function,” said Tom Ahlberg, a board member of the Worthington Cemetery Association. “[We] couldn’t mow the grass.”
Ultimately the local governments decided to pay $10,000 each rather than risk the association dissolving and having the cemetery become a public responsibility. Ahlberg said in the past they would have used the interest on their perpetual care fund to stay afloat, but low interest rates have made that difficult.
They hope to begin offering tours and other events to draw visitors, and additional contributions.
“My parents really were big about taking care of the flowers [at the cemetery] and all that. People are getting more removed from that, to be honest,” Ahlberg said. “You’re not seeing a lot of 20-year-olds out visiting the cemetery. So they don’t really have that connection.”
Ron Gjerde, secretary-treasurer of the Minnesota Cemetery Association, said it is not unusual for cemeteries to run a deficit, but they try to make it up using dividends and interest on the perpetual care fund.
“With a large metropolitan cemetery like that, I’m quite surprised” by McReavy’s offer, Gjerde said. “It’s got such a history, and it’s been around for so long.”