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For Farmington area cemeteries, a struggle to survive

Janet Oistad is the secretary/treasurer for Castle Rock Valley Cemetery.

Castle Rock Valley Cemetery is a peaceful place on a sunny spring afternoon. The rows of stone monuments are arranged on a low hill surrounded by farm fields, the grass neatly trimmed and greenery dots a landscaped area at the property's entrance.

It's picturesque, but the group that manages the cemetery's operations are increasingly worried about how long they can keep it that way.

They're not alone, either. Cemeteries around Farmington and around the country are facing trouble paying the bills. Janet Oistad, secretary/treasurer of the Castle Rock Valley Cemetery Board, believes her organization has enough money left for at most 10 years. After that? It might be time to simply let the grass keep growing.

According to Oistad, cemeteries have been hit by three big problems in recent years. Money they've invested doesn't earn the interest it once did, fewer people are buying burial plots and the cost of lawn mowing has skyrocketed.

In other words, there's a lot of money going out, but not much coming in. The economy has hurt interest rates, and with more people opting for cremation, there is less demand for burial plots.

In 1989, the cemetery board paid $85 per mowing. By 2002, that cost had increased to $130 per mowing and last year it was $225.

Part of that increase is due to the rising price of gas, but it doesn't help that cemeteries, with all of their headstones, present a unique challenge for mowers. Oistad understands the reasons for the increase, but she worries about what it will mean for the long-term health of the cemetery.

"It's gotten way out of line," said Oistad, who has several family members buried at Castle Rock Valley Cemetery and hopes to be buried herself someday. "We're a nonprofit. We have no real income other than if we sell a plot. We'll maybe average one or two plots a year."

That is a pretty good average compared to what Elaine Wikstrom has seen at Emmanuel Cemetery. Located a few miles North of Castle Rock Valley, there hasn't been a lot sold at Emmanuel in three years. The Emmanuel Board has raised prices to help cover costs, but that doesn't do any good if nobody is buying.

Other sources of income have dried up, too. Cemeteries once frequently received memorial donations when people buried there died. Now, that is less common.

Mowing is cheaper at Emmanuel because a board member who lives down the road donates his time, and there is some income from a piece of cemetery property that is being rented to a nearby farmer until the cemetery needs it. But Wikstrom still worries about making ends meet. She has been doing what she can to spread the word about the cemetery, where she and her husband both own plots. She spoke to members of her church, Faith United Methodist, on Easter Sunday to suggest they buy their plots now before the price goes up in June.

"I'm not afraid to get up in front of church and say, 'Hey guys, have you planned ahead?'" Wikstrom said. "'If you died tomorrow, where would they plant you?'"

The Emmanuel board has also sent fundraising letters to the families of people buried at the cemetery. So far, that has brought in about $800.

There are problems that go beyond bank balances, though. Boards at both cemeteries are made up mostly of older residents, and some of them are getting to the point where they don't want to serve anymore. If there is nobody to replace them, the cemeteries' futures become unclear. Control at Emmanuel would revert to Faith United, but Castle Rock Valley is not associated with a church.

Part of the problem, Oistad and Wikstrom say, is that people don't tend to think about cemeteries much outside of Memorial Day or funerals.

Oistad and Wikstrom have both heard stories of cemeteries that have been left untended and disappeared under tall grass and weeds. Neither wants to see that happen here.

Emmanuel, located just south of Highway 50 near Blaine Avenue, is on property that was once the site of a former church said to have hosted one of the first church weddings in Minnesota. Castle Rock Valley was established in 1863. Some of the area's oldest families are buried there, including many Civil War veterans.

"There is a lot of history," Oistad said. "Do we want to be disrespectful and let things all grow up with long grass? I don't want that to happen.

"It's a dilemma," she said. "I have lots, my husband and I. My great-grandfather's buried there. My grandfather's buried there. My folks are buried there.... It's a pretty cemetery when it's all decorated, and we want to keep it like that."

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

(651) 460-6606