Historic Cemetery Preservation

by Erin Hanafin Berg, Field Representative
January 28, 2009

In my (limited) spare time, I have been reading The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History by David Charles Stone. I turned to this book several months ago, when I was preparing to give a presentation at a symposium on historic cemeteries that was held at the Hennepin History Museum on November 22. Stone’s text addresses the placement and design of cemeteries in relation to the expansion of our urban areas and changing perceptions of death. Call me morbid or downright strange, but the book was so interesting that I renewed it twice from the library, and even racked up a few dollars in overdue fines. (Shhh, don’t tell anyone. . . .)

The Main Gates at Layman's/Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery in Minneapolis.

The Main Gates at Layman's/Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery, Minneapolis. Photograph by Doug Ohman, Pioneer Photography.

My presentation at the cemetery symposium was geared towards providing the context for understanding why cemeteries are important historic places. Layman’s/Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery, at the corner of Cedar Avenue South and East Lake Street in Minneapolis, is on the Alliance’s 2008 list of the Ten Most Endangered Minnesota Historic Places and we received a few odd looks and comments when its endangered status was announced. The cemetery is, in fact, the only Minnesota cemetery listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and it is also a designated Minneapolis Landmark. Founded in 1853 on land donated by the Layman Family, Pioneers and Soldiers cemetery contains 20,000 graves on twenty-seven acres. It is now owned by the City of Minneapolis but, since the cemetery lacks a perpetual maintenance fund, the grounds, monuments, and wrought-iron fencing that surrounds the site are in dire need of care.

A non-profit organization, Friends of the Cemetery, was founded in 2005 to bring awareness to the significance of the site and its urgent needs for restoration. This volunteer group sponsors special events such as annual Memorial Day celebrations, talks, and tours. The Minneapolis Department of Planning and Economic Development (CPED) also has been diligent in pursuing grant funding to help restore the cemetery. Recently, the city received a $100,000 grant from the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) to begin restoration work on the fence.

Snow-covered monuments at Layman's/Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery.

Snow-covered monuments at Layman's/Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery. Photograph by Doug Ohman, Pioneer Photography.

The folks in attendance at the historic cemetery symposium were a small, but enthusiastic, lot. Through conversation with them and in my own reading and research, I have gained a new appreciation and interest in cemetery preservation. Hopefully a few of you will take notice of the historic cemeteries in your communities or, at the very least, check out The Last Great Necessity. (For those of you in Saint Paul, it will be back in circulation at the library sometime tomorrow.)

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