I was on the hunt for my great-grandfather, Harry G. Kammerer, amidst the gravestones at Crystal Lake Cemetery in North Minneapolis. I didn’t know exactly where Harry, who died in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, and his wife Anna, who outlived him by 48 years, were buried. Only that I was supposed to look out for a family bench.
A gray light washed over the cemetery, as clouds overhead shielded the gravestones from the sun. All was quiet when a red fox scampered across the grass. She made her way to an old pine tree with a den dug out of the base of its trunk. There, the fox greeted her pack of five cubs, a beautiful sign of rebirth amidst the resting place of the dead. When I did finally find Anna and Harry’s headstones, I was glad they had a friendly fox family to visit them.
I’ve made many fortuitous discoveries taking walks in various cemeteries around the Twin Cities. I was initially drawn to graveyards because they provide an opportunity to get away from other people—at least, living people. Cemeteries house plenty of spirits, in the form of memories, to visit without having to social distance.
Something about living in a pandemic draws me to cemeteries, besides the attraction of having space to walk. Death is on the news every day, and many of us have loved ones who have gotten sick. A respectful walk through the land where the dead are at rest offers solitude and a chance to ponder ancestors, family members, and loved ones who have passed, as well as our own mortality. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Mary Oliver asked. As I read the names of those who died long ago, or in the recent past, I wonder what their souls would have us remember, and what I would like to leave behind.
I didn’t see many other visitors around Crystal Lake. Reviews online—yes, there are online cemetery reviews—complain that the site isn’t well maintained. A water fountain needed work, and a number of headstones were covered in grass clippings. And yet, the natural beauty of the place, with its canopy of trees and rolling hills, brought on a peaceful feeling.
Wide roadways are a key selling point for Crystal Lake and other cemeteries I have visited since COVID-19 hit. Because they are often accessible by car, the ample space on these roads is far superior for social distancing than pedestrian and bike paths on parkland. Going on a “social distance walk” with a friend or family member is nearly impossible around the lakes. But it’s fairly easy to stay 6 feet away from someone on a cemetery road, as at Lakewood Cemetery.
Located on Bde Maka Ska’s southeast shore, Lakewood was a popular spot even before COVID-19 due to its distinctive architecture, pastoral landscape, and famous residents, including Tiny Tim, Hubert H. Humphrey, and T.B. Walker.
The Byzantine Revival Memorial Chapel has drawn large crowds for music concerts within its mosaic interior, by local groups like the Mill City String Quartet, Cantus, and the Nightingale Trio, as well as vocalists Robert Robertson and Aby Wolf. The minimalist Garden Mausoleum, designed by HGA Architects and Engineers, also entices visitors. While pandemic times might not be ideal for visiting the insides of buildings, it’s still pleasant to admire the exteriors as well as the Mausoleum’s garden, which in summer months has a stunning water feature.
Then there are the monuments throughout the grounds. Some are majestic, and some are more like works of contemporary art than markers for the dead. The large boulder memorial remembering the late Sen. Paul Wellstone and his family is quite touching—it features small stones folks have placed on top of it. Another curious find is the Neo-Egyptian pyramid made for the family of a hotel owner named Col. Charles H. Wood. There are markers that you happen upon with wonder. A memorial for Minneapolis circus performers, called Showmen’s Rest, features a giant covered bench with the word “Sit” on top. There are beautiful works of stained glass that capture the light as the sun sets.
Haunted by History
In contrast, Fort Snelling National Cemetery has a much more uniform look. As far as the eye can see, gravestones are the same size and shape, spaced equidistant from one another. The vast landscape is both haunting and beautiful.
Honorably discharged veterans are guaranteed burial benefits at Fort Snelling or at one of the other 141 national cemeteries across the country, which includes a grave site, burial costs, a government headstone, and perpetual care. The benefits extend to the veteran’s spouse or dependent, whose name often appears on the back of the stone.
Like Crystal Lake, Fort Snelling has its share of wildlife. Ducks go about their day in a small pond at the edge of the grounds. And Minneapolis Pioneers & Soldiers Memorial Cemetery, off Lake Street and Cedar Avenue farther north, is known for one living resident, a deer. Some call her Fern, others Shawna the Fauna. She’s rather magical, wandering about this urban cemetery.
Small in comparison to some of the other cemeteries in town, Pioneers & Soldiers was opened in 1858 by farmers Martin and Elizabeth Layman. It’s closed for new burials and maintained by the volunteer-run nonprofit Friends of the Cemetery.
About half of the gravesites at this spot are for children, many from immigrant families from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. It also houses many of the city’s early African American residents, including seven black Civil War veterans. And it contains a potter’s field, filled with unmarked graves.
Because the graves are so old, this place holds a lot of power. You feel the weight of the lives that roamed the earth so many years ago. I passed by a grave for a person named Jane S. Gibson, who died in 1919. A cross, with a green polka-dotted ribbon, stands at the head of her grave. I imagine a descendent must have adorned the cross with such care.
It makes sense to visit a cemetery if you know your ancestors or loved ones are there. That’s not always possible. There are 3,333 recorded cemeteries in Minnesota, and 2,542 unrecorded ones, according to a 2011 report by Two Pines Resource Group, for the Minnesota Historical Society.
The unrecorded ones include burial sites for people on both sides of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. There are Native American burial mounds and non-mound burial sites from before settlers arrived through 1960, along with the unmarked graves of countless Dakota who perished while interned at Fort Snelling between 1862 and 1863.
For that reason, I know it’s a privilege to be able to visit one’s ancestors. It’s good to show respect for those you visit, and important to remember those who walked this land before us and now rest in places unknown.
Where to Go:
Acacia Park Cemetery
This cemetery is on a hilltop above the Minnesota River and overlooks the skylines of Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Bloomington.
2151 Pilot Knob Rd., St. Paul
Crystal Lake Cemetery
3816 Penn Ave. N., Minneapolis
Fort Snelling National Cemetery
7601 34th Ave. S., Minneapolis
Operated by Washburn-McReavy, the company that also runs Crystal Lake, Hillside is located in northeast Minneapolis. It has the best of two worlds: a picturesque natural area with ample space for walking, and a gorgeous view of Minneapolis’ downtown skyline.
2600 19th Ave. NE, Minneapolis
3600 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
Minneapolis Pioneers & Soldiers Memorial Cemetery
2945 Cedar Ave., Minneapolis
Founded in 1853, Oakland is Minnesota’s oldest public cemetery and follows a “garden cemetery” style by landscape architect Horace Cleveland, who also designed Lakewood Cemetery, as well as the Minneapolis park system’s Grand Rounds, the University of Minnesota campus, and Minnehaha Park.
927 Jackson St., St. Paul