Buried History

Minneapolis's past lies forgotten at the Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery

A protective association spurred a letter-writing campaign to save the cemetery. A viable opposition force arose and newspaper editorials denounced the redevelopment plans. "Layman's cemetery should be preserved inviolate," reads an April 28, 1925 editorial in the Minneapolis Journal. "It should be beautified and cared for lovingly. The Park Board should reject absolutely the project for taking it over and making it a playground, where the joyous feet of the living may desecrate what was once the last earthly resting place of men and women who helped make Minneapolis a city."

In 1926, a North Dakota man named Budd Reeve wrote a book-length homage to the cemetery entitled, "Answering the Call from Layman's Cemetery." He made an impassioned plea, arguing that "when the influence of the dead is no longer felt and recognized by the living--when that time comes, order will be gone."

To bring the matter to a close, the city of Minneapolis in 1927 purchased the partially emptied cemetery for $35,000 and paid another $15,000 for capital improvements. The city has owned it ever since.

Aside from an ongoing problem with vandals who climb the fence and push over tombstones, the graveyard's modern history is less controversial. Pioneers and Soldiers was reopened to burials in 1934, though anyone wishing to be interred there had to show that they had a family member already buried there and secure permission from the City Council. New burials have been sporadic. The last one, in 1999, was of cremated remains. In June 2002, the cemetery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, the cemetery runs on a shoestring budget. It's open only from April through October each year, and then only on Wednesdays through Sundays. The city's public works department pays the caretaker, and the park board foots the bill for tree-trimming and other maintenance. Beyond that, a group has been formed, called Friends of the Cemetery, to raise awareness about Pioneers and Soldiers, to work to preserve it, and to help restore and replace some of the decaying and missing markers. Last May, the group sponsored an Arbor Day celebration, planting 150 trees throughout the grounds (one for each year since the first burial). Sue Hunter-Weir, one of the handful of cemetery lovers, acknowledges that it's a daunting mission, given the city's budget shortfalls. "When live people are suffering," she muses, "how do you get people to care about dead ones?"

 

It's a recent sunny Sunday morning, and David Webb is pleased to have discovered the grave of his great grandfather, Michael D. Boosalis. It lies in the back section of Pioneers and Soldiers, removed somewhat from the clamor of Lake Street and Cedar Avenue, tucked discreetly in the shadow of the neighboring sheet metal factory's looming smokestack. Boosalis's neighbors are veterans (their marble markers indicate service in the Spanish American War) and a pocket of headstones so weathered you can barely discern that their epitaphs are written in Norwegian.

For some time now, Webb has been piecing together his family's history, although he only recently relocated to the Twin Cities. He is eager to share his grandfather's story; it's almost as if repeating it makes the connection to the past more palpable.

"He was from Greece, but he married a Lebanese woman," Webb begins, excitedly tripping over the words. "The rest of the family didn't approve of that. And one day, at a birthday party for one of his kids, he took out a gun and shot himself."

Webb leans over the marker, a slab of reddish granite engraved with a cross and some flowers. He snaps a digital picture of the stone, remarking that it looks fairly new. Mike D. "Caperony" Boosalis. 1869-1914. Father. He notes to himself that he'll ask his cousin, who's also interested in the family genealology, what he knows about the headstone.

This is exactly the kind of interaction between past and present that advocates of old graveyards like Pioneers and Soldiers cherish. "If you walk into a cemetery, you get a different feeling than if you walk into a park or an office building or a new suburban neighborhood," says Ann Palkovich, Krasnow associate professor of antrhopology at George Mason University. "There's a structure to it, a reverence to it. It becomes a record of the past you can't replace with a photograph. Respect for the dead," the longtime cemtery scholar continues, "reverence for those who lived in the past. These are actual remains of individuals, whether famous individuals or a newborn baby who died 100 years ago. They are irreplaceable places, as much about us as they are about our past."

Adds Sloane, author of The Last Great Necessity, cemeteries "open a window into the people who were there. Not the rich and powerful. The people who didn't leave libraries or photo albums."

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