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October 2015

Will Minnesota have a Third Veteran's Cemetery?

Redwood County in Minnesota has been developing a veterans cemetery since mid-2014, but has met several roadblocks in this process. The Redwood County Board of Commissioners has committed up to $1 million for this parcel, and around August 2014 agreed to purchase over a 63 acre parcel of land for $537,710. The plan behind this land purchase is for Minnesota approve the land, and the County would then donate the land to the state for the “multi-million dollar effort to develop the cemetery in the area.” However, the project has stalled since the purchase of the land, seemingly due to a combination of funding, planning, and bureaucracy issues. For one, a mile-long gravel road that leads to the parcel of land would have to be paved, at a cost of “hundreds of thousands of dollars” that appears to have to come from local tax levies (not state or federal funds). Additionally, the state of Minnesota is currently in the middle of two other cemetery projects, and the impression is that work on the veterans cemetery would not begin until both of the in-progress cemeteries are completed – which could take until some time in 2016.

Despite these issues, Minnesota law does not appear to address the timeliness of the development of a state-operated veterans cemetery. Minnesota maintains a veterans cemetery development and maintenance account to be used for “development, operation, maintenance, and improvement of [veterans] cemeteries.” Yet, operations of a veterans cemetery seem to be left to the commissioner of veterans affairs, and not subject to Chapter 306 of the Minnesota Statutes, which governs public cemeteries. Therefore, while there are state-statutorily-devoted funds for the development and maintenance of a veterans cemetery in Minnesota, the process, timeliness, and maintenance of development is not addressed. Besides these law-related issues, it is interesting that there is only one current operating veterans cemetery in Minnesota, another under development, and the Redwood County veterans cemetery would be the third veterans cemetery in Minnesota.

Anastasia Fanning

Affordable Housing, Cemetery vie for Space in Chapel Hill

A planned community of affordable apartments in eastern North Carolina has some residents worried that there won't be enough room for a local cemetery.

The Chapel Hill Town Council sold off several acres adjacent to a local cemetery in 2013 to a non-profit in order to construct low-cost apartment housing for working families and seniors. Although construction is not slated to begin until next year, some locals are already concerned that this means there won't be room for the Chapel Hill Cemetery to expand in the future. One long-time resident, Eunice Brock claims that the land was promised to the cemetery by the Town Council twenty years ago.

“Most of the people in the town, especially if they’ve had family buried out there, expect it to just continue along on the side,” she told The Daily Tar Heel, the University of North Carolina's student newspaper.

While it is true that there are restrictions on what municipalities may due with land that has been officially designated for cemetery purposes, there are no such restrictions on land allegedly promised to cemeteries - and certainly not for the expectations of locals. 

There are currently only 53 plots left in Chapel Hill Cemetery, which cemetery administration only expects to last for about a year. After that, residents wishing to be buried will have to look elsewhere. Ms. Brock, with an apparently lack of irony, worries that this could be more expensive. Of course, there are always alternatives to burial. Chapel Hill is planning on building a columbarium adjacent to the cemetery.

As we have noted before, an ever-increasing population and a finite amount of land means that the living and the dead will continue to battle over real estate. While it may be true, as the French philosopher Auguste Comte remarked, that the dead govern the living, we need not allow them to regulate our land.

Steven Verez

Our Baby Boy — Remembering the Dead of Antietam

While driving from Indianapolis to Baltimore last week, I saw a sign for the Antietam National Battlefield, a national park. I'd never visited Antietam, but was struck by the description of the battle in the excellent documentary Death and the Civil War. A "quick" detour turned into a 3 hour visit as the afternoon sun faded. I'm so glad I took the time.


Continue reading "Our Baby Boy — Remembering the Dead of Antietam" »

Graveyards, Missing in Minnesota

Just outside Fergus Falls, Minnesota exists a sleepy, forgotten cemetery of impoverished immigrants, disadvantaged farmers, and unwanted jailbirds unable to afford a proper cemetery. The burial place, a forgotten stretch of pasture riddled with weeds and tall grass, was farmed until 1978. The 176 graves date from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Bob Reipe, Otter Tail County resident, rediscovered this elapsed, historical graveyard in the 2000s. His research offers a look beyond wealthy American settlers. Instead, it uncovers the stories of the poor and the average.

Though graveyard includes a multitude of different people, from murders to early settlers, theirs burials provide stories of intrigue, sparking both local and national interest. One of the graves marked Lulu Harris was a woman who “ran the house of ill repute in Fergus Falls and was murdered back in 1886.” Reipe explains, “The first person buried ont here is a Civil War vet.” Essentially, the graves represent the “poor. Everybody that’s out here had one thing in common. They were all poor.” In the aftermath to Reipe’s initial research, a family from Twin Cities was able find and visit the cemetery and find the grave of a lost loved one. Reipe took the family to the grave, previous unbeknownst to them, and the family fell to their knees and began to cry. Reipe felt, “right then It thought its all worth it.”

Beyond the emotional value of rediscovering historical graveyards, Reipe’s work aligns with both the legal and political aims of Minnesota law. Minnesota state law dictates that it is a felony to knowingly disturb a cemetery. There are over 6,000 cemeteries in Minnesota, and state archeologist Scott Anfinson believes at least half of these cemeteries are abandoned. Because many of these abandoned graveyards are located on farmland, like the Fergus Falls graveyard, farmers often plow over the graves despite knowing the cemeteries’ existence. In response to such actions, archaeology scholars such as Rebecca Dean of the Univeristy of Minnesota, “will just try our best to figure out based on the old photographs, which grave was which.” Despite the law against knowingly destroying a burial ground, scholars interested in preserving such history feel the rule lacks viable manpower. “If we had a full time person dedicated to cemeteries I think a lot would get done,” said Afinson. “This is hallowed ground and it deserves to be preserved.”

Katie Ott

Restoring Dignity to the Poor Farm Cemetery

The Poor Farm Cemetery near Fergus Falls, Minnesota contains the bodies of those too poor to afford a proper burial in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Under Minnesota Statute Section 306.245, a town may step in to maintain and keep clear of weeds “a cemetery that has been neglected for at least ten years.” Section 306.243 further states that a town board “may appropriate the general revenue funds necessary for the improvement and maintenance of . . . (1) a cemetery that has been abandoned or neglected and the association having had charge of the cemetery has disbanded or fails to act; or (2) an abandoned or neglected private cemetery containing the remains of pioneers or residents of this state, deceased before 1875 or civil war veterans or veterans of the armed services of the United States.” The timeline of the Poor Farm Cemetery appears to make it eligible for a town board to appropriate funds for its maintenance under the second prong of this statute.

However, this task has been taken on by Bob Reipe. It is not clear what Mr. Reipe’s motivation is aside from a humanitarian motivation to give the buried “dignity at last.” While the town could have stepped in and funded the clearing and upkeep of this cemetery, it thus far appears to have failed to do so. And it is not clear if Mr. Reipe’s actions are, in a legal sense, within the bounds of the law. He is not running a cemetery, and therefore likely falls out of the governing law of Minnesota of public and private cemeteries. However, he is clearing, maintaining, and giving a name and restoring dignity to those who were buried there – whether a veterinarian, a proprietor of a “house of ill repute,” a civil war veteran, or a prisoner. The town board in this situation seems to have avoided using this option to maintain the cemetery, but perhaps they will step in and help Mr. Reipe to better commemorate the dead and poor.

Anastasia E. Fanning


Woman Destroys Eight Gravestones ... and Doesn't Have to Restore Them

Anita Ross was driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs when she crashed her Mercedes SUV into a Kentucky cemetery, knocking down eight gravestones.  As a result of this crash, Ross was charged with a DUI and criminal mischief while hospitalized.  Under Kentucky law, violation of graves, to include damaging the headstone or footnote of a grave, is a Class D felony.  Ky. Stat. Ann .§ 525.115(1)(b).  Under Ky. Stat. Ann. § 525.115(4), "the court shall order the defendant to restore the cemetery to its pre-damage condition."

However, this statute requires that the violation be intentional.  Thus, as Kentucky law currently stands, Ross would likely not face any felony charges specifically related to the damage to the cemetery because she was under the influence of alcohol and drugs, and intent would be difficult to prove in a court of law.  In fact, she has not been charged with violating graves, but instead faces the more general charge of criminal mischief.  This charge will account for her reckless damage to "any property," as opposed to any specific damage to the cemeteries.  Ky. Stat. Ann. § 512.020.  

Ross' recklessness brings to light the concern for the preservation of cemeteries and dead bodies.  While Kentucky law recognizes a heightened level of punishment for damage to gravestones in § 525.115, likely in keeping with societal deference and respect toward the dead, this statute is too narrow to bring Ross into its realm because of the "intent" requirement.  Should Kentucky consider lowering the standard under § 525.115 so Ross can also be found guilty under this statute?  While § 525.115 attempts to punish damage to gravestones, in this case Kentucky law is too narrow to properly punish Ross for her actions.  However, she destroyed eight gravestones, and mowed over several flowers.  Despite the damage, a court is not compelled to order her to "restore the cemetery to its pre-damage condition" because she has not been charged with violating graves felony.  In a case such as this, where the suspect has faced two previous DUIs and has caused damage to eight gravestones, Ross should have to contribute at least some aid to restore the cemetery. 

Jasmine Little


Construction is Halted in Tennessee When a "Black Cemetery" is Unearthed

For the last half century, space has become an increasingly rare commodity in this country. Commercial and residential development has sky-rocketed. Everywhere you turn, large parcels of land are being cleared out to erect the newest shopping development or residential complex. Unfortunately, contractors, land developers and zoning officials were surprised with what they found when they began excavating land for 46 single-family homes in North Chattanooga, Tennessee. 

Gary Hilbert, director of Chattanooga's Land Development Office, was force to stop construction of the homes when the grave of Bellfleet Bowood, who passed in July of 1920, was unearthed. According to genealogical records, Bowood's grave once marked the edge of Beck Knob cemetery, a cemetery for "blacks" from the late 1890's to the 1940's. Records show that nearly 90 bodies were buried in the cemetery and multiple burials in the same spot. Hilton stated that developers were aware of "an old black cemetery in the woods" but that it was not accurately depicted on the maps. However, a nearby resident states that she always knew of the cemetery's location and she could "always see three headstones." It is unclear as to why zoning and building officials were unsure about the exact location of the cemetery. 

Developers must locate all of the graves and ensure that there is no further damage before construction can resume. 46-2-107 of the Tennessee Annotated Code states that no person shall willfully destroy, deface, or injure any monument, tomb, gravestone, or other structure placed in the cemetery, or any roadway, walk, fence, or enclosure in or around the same. 46-4-104 of the Code states that if a burial ground has been neglected, abandoned, or there exist any condition or activity about or near the burial ground which the court finds renders the further use of same for purposes of aforementioned inconsistent with due and proper reverence or respect for the memory of the dead then the removal and internment of the dead shall be granted.

Michael Grace

FCA and CFA Study Show Funeral Rule Isn't Working

It's been over thirty years since the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) Funeral Rule was enacted in an effort to make funeral pricing more transparent and straightforward. The Rule, which is enforced by the FTC, makes it possible for consumers to choose only those goods and services that are actually needed or wanted and to pay only for those goods and services selected. The Rule is also supposed to allow consumers to compare prices among funeral homes. It requires funeral homes to give customers their price information over the phone when asked, and also requires that they give customers an itemized list when they visit the funeral home. Unfortunately, nearly thirty years later and consumers are having just as difficult a time getting pricing information.

A survey published on October 19, 2015, by the Federal Consumers Alliance (FCA) and the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) showed what a terrible job funeral homes and cremation businesses do in disclosing their prices. The report released by the FCA and the CFA was based on a national survey they conducted of the prices and price disclosures of a representative sample of 150 funeral homes from ten different regions of the country. The survey found that only 38 of the 150 (25%) funeral homes disclosed their prices on their website and 24 (16%) failed to disclose pricing on their website and in response to an email and a phone call. The most striking information was the price variances in a single city. In D.C. the price for full service funerals was found to range from $3,770 to $13,800. The cost for the same funeral services varied by at least 100% in every city and sometimes by as much as three times the cost of the lowest service. As the CFA Exective Director, Steven Brobeck, points out, these dramatic price ranges for identical funeral services indicate that the "markets lack effective competition."

Now, consumer advocates are asking the FTC to require funeral homes to post pricing lists on their websites. The FCA Executive Director, Josh Slocum, says that the FTC needs to update its antiquated disclosure rules, which were last updated in 1994, before the internet. California is cited as an example of a jurisdiction that has done just that, and now requires funeral homes to disclose on their websites the same pricing that the FTC requires to be disclosed by phone or in-person. The FCA and CFA are releasing their research to the FTC and urging them to update the Funeral Rule to require price disclosure on funeral home websites.   

Emily Morris

Lost cemeteries

On September 17, 2015, WDAY, a local news outlet in Fargo, North Dakota, published a story about a man in Fergus Falls, Minnesota who has been “[g]iving a voice and a name to those buried in a forgotten cemetery” outside the town.  Over two years ago, Bob Reipe found the cemetery, which is called Poor Farm Cemetery.   Buried at Poor Farm are impoverished immigrants, people who died in county jail, including murderers, Civil War veterans, and even a woman who ran the town brothel.  

It may seem odd that someone would go to all the trouble to uncover a cemetery and identify and mark all the graves of those buried there, but don’t you admire his efforts just a little?  How would you feel if you knew that, 100 years or so after your death, the place where you were buried had become an overgrown area?  

Even if this notion of a “permanent resting place” isn’t as crucial as it once was, how is it that a cemetery became lost and unattended?  The reason is that things changed when settlers left England to come to America.  Where it was once the clergy’s responsibility to tend the final resting places of its congregants, this practice did not continue in America.  Instead other methods arose such as cemeteries owned by private corporations, municipality owned cemeteries, or families who would bury their family members on their land.  To combat neglect of cemeteries in light of these changes, many states require cemeteries to maintain a perpetual care fund.  See, for example, how the Cooperative Funeral Fund, Inc. speaks about this idea.  Even with the establishment of a fund, cemeteries may still run out of money because it may run out of spaces to sell and therefore lose any income it might be investing in the fund. Or in our global world, people are not staying in the same place where they grew up, but instead are moving away.

Lost cemeteries, like the Poor Farm Cemetery, that have become overgrown and forgotten continue to be discovered (all you have to do is google “lost cemeteries” and many stories will pop up).  The Poor Farm Cemetery did not benefit from the establishment of a perpetual care fund, but Mr. Reipe has given an identity to those buried there, and even heard from the descendants of people who were buried there.  According to Mr. Reipe, he "[b]rought [the family] out here [,] took them over there to that exact spot and said, 'Yes, this is where he's buried.'  And she fell to her knees and began to cry.  And right then I thought it's all worth it."

Poor Farm Cemetery’s discovery acts as a reminder of the problem that many cemeteries face about how to fund upkeep costs and shows us a glimpse of history to see that a town’s dead would be placed in a nameless cemetery but for Reipe’s efforts.

Taylor Ey

QR Codes and Digital Memorials

QR Codes are everywhere.  Acting like new and improved bar codes, they contain more information than barcodes, are more resistant to damage or obscurity rendering them unreadable, and anyone with a smartphone can make use of them.  Invented originally to track all the moving pieces of Japanese automobiles during production, QR codes have been adapted for a number of uses.  They now link people with smart devices to everything from college alumni networks, promotional material for new products, and now graves.

QR codes now link users to websites or digital spaces containing information about the resident of a grave whose headstone features a QR code.  Companies like Digital Legacys and Qeepr embed QR codes into headstones with the idea that they will link visitors to photographs, genealogical information, and the social networking sites of the deceased.  These digital spaces can even be accessed by people who are not physically present at the grave.

But will these new QR headstones catch on?  Privacy and longevity are the biggest questions surrounding the issue.  While some companies offer privacy protection incorporated into the digital spaces linked to the QR codes, the codes' link to spreading malware may prove too much for widespread adoption by the public, especially when coupled with "normal" privacy concerns associated with linking the public to personal information.  Putting up a login portal that can be circumvented with software or restricting physical access to the QR code by requiring a key only family members possess are not ideal solutions to this issue.  And though Digital Legacys advocates that "sharing is caring," allowing the random visitors of cemeteries access to personal memories or digital artifacts associated with the deceased does not assuage the qualms of those with privacy worries at all.  One potential solution could be to have the QR code direct certain users through a clearing service that differentiates between preapproved devices or identities and strangers, directing family and friends to an in-depth memorial site while diverting unwelcome visitors to a digital space with less information.

But even if people start adopting QR code headstones en mass, will they stand the test of time?  While headstones are made from sturdy materials intended to withstand the elements and the ravages of time, the standard names and dates of many tombstones from eras gone by have worn away, leaving visitors to wonder about the inhabitant.  Even if the physical code embedded in the rock somehow avoids erosion, the digital spaces must be maintained and even updated.  One can imagine a whole new realm of cemetery care arising around the need to preserve domains, keep access codes or IDs in the family as generations pass, or any other of a multitude of digital chores.

Without a substantial number of adopters, these questions may not be answered, and those who have made use of services like Digital Legacys and Qeepr may see their investment rendered obsolete.  But as technology develops and people familiar with its use near their end, more graves may feature QR codes and other technologies.

Blaydes Moore