Buried History

Over at Layman's Cemetery, preparations for winter have begun. The stooped gardener, with his ear plugs and orange hunting cap, snakes his riding mower around the tombstones, chopping and distributing leaves as they drift off the oaks. The caretaker shovels fresh dirt here and there, attempting to level a sinking grave. Soon the snow will take over the job of smoothing the sloping grounds, rendering invisible the sparse scattering of bleached plastic flowers and burying all but the most substantial memorials in a second interment. The heavy iron gates will be pulled closed for the season and fastened with chains and paddle-locks.

At Layman's, which runs along one of the busier sections of Lake Street near Cedar Avenue, being open or closed makes little difference. Visitors are scarce and the cemetery hasn't hosted a funeral for more than three years. The last time anyone purchased a burial plot was in 1919. The oldest standing headstones, anemic slices of weathered marble, are bleached white with age, and stained with urban grit, more a testament to desertion than to the dead. Thousands more have turned to chalk. Some are epoxied into jig-saw memorials. Others have disappeared entirely, leaving toothy stumps to mark their dead.

It wasn't always so. There was a time when Layman's Cemetery was considered fancy and was the final destination for Minneapolis's most elite citizens.

The choice to bury Rudy Perpich in Lakewood Cemetery near Lake Calhoun in Uptown, once his home on the Iron Range was ruled out, was a foregone conclusion. He would logically be laid to rest among its finely manicured walking paths, rolling hills, and other symbols of manufactured peace, along side other notables like Hubert Humphrey and the inventor of the Mars Bar. The choice raised neither the eyebrows nor the professional ire of the Minneapolis Street Department workers who preside over Layman's. But 120 years ago, Perpich's burial procession would have led to Lake and Cedar.

Martin Layman, an early New York transplant, staked his farm claim in 1853 on a piece of land in what is now south Minneapolis. It stood far from the cursing and drinking of the saw-mill amputees down along the Mississippi. Minnesota had not yet been declared a state and Minneapolis, twenty years from incorporation, was a rough-cut lumberjack settlement consisting of a handful of wood frame houses and a dozen sawmills with wagon-wheel-sized blades near St. Anthony Falls.

There's no consensus in the public record as to the identity of the settlement's first casualty in 1853. One of the workers at Layman's Cemetery, whose access to burial records lends him authority, believes it was the son of Reverend W. E. Cressy, the first Baptist minister at First Baptist Church. Whether or not the body belonged to Cressy's son, it was in need of a burial site and a proper service so Martin Layman offered a spot in a fallow field. Cressy, one imagines, presided over the ceremonies himself, in a flapping black cloak, after Layman, perspiring in a last burst of September sun, dug the grave.

More bodies were buried in Layman's field. In 1858 he officially converted it to a public cemetery and for the next decade his claim on the city's dead remained unchallenged. He sold plots to some of the better names in the Blue Book: the founder of the City Library; Colonel J. H. Stevens, the first settler in Minneapolis; Minnesota's first Civil War casualty; the surveyor of Minneapolis's streets. But in 1871, along came Lakewood Cemetery. Layman continued to do business, but the new, sprawling lakeside graveyard spelled the beginning of the end for the city's original burial ground. By then the flour barons were in ascendance. Mills like the Washburn Crosby Company's (the W.C.C. in WCCO) began crowding out the old saw mills and some of the traditions that went with them. In death, the Pillsburys, the Lorings and the other second-wave civic masters opted for the elegance of Lakewood. Other families of distinction followed suit.

By 1919, Lakewood boasted an ornate chapel and an artificial lake, while across town, Layman's was already collapsing into ruin. The well-connected third-generation Laymans didn't miss the cue. Flush from the success of their forebears and lacking the family inclination for the shovel, they attempted, in the words of the rescuing Minneapolis Cemetery Protective Association, to "foist it onto the city for a park by legislation at the session of 1925." While the fate of the graveyard was being decided, the grounds fell further into disrepair and families, concerned for the dignity of their dead loved ones, panicked. Between August and October of 1919--while a gawking mob looked on--relatives exhumed 2,000 corpses and moved them to new burial grounds.

The Cemetery Protective Association, a group of fashionable neighbors concerned primarily with appearances, fought back and eventually, with the help of the now-forgotten Mayor George Leach, convinced the city to purchase the grounds and maintain them as the Old Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery. "That this Memorial Cemetery will, in time, become the pride of our citizens seems assured," the society trumpeted. "It will stand as a monument to the civilians and military men, and a memento of their deeds of labor and valor. It will be both an honor to them and a credit to our city."

For a time, the association's predictions held true. Memorial Day celebrations to honor hundreds of war casualties featured brass bands marching down Lake Street, twenty-one-gun salutes at the stroke of noon, and patriots with their children and picnic baskets swathed in red, white and blue bunting. But over time, those who remembered civil war veterans grew old and died. New wars came along; new train-lines drained prosperity away from the surrounding Lake Street neighborhood; the cemetery was relegated to the city Street Department; and the brass band moved to jauntier climes.

Today, the graveyard shifts lazily as diesel buses grind past Lake Street's single story shop-fronts. A hulking factory grinds bituminous rock nearby and a steady stream of cars pull in and out of the liquor store parking lot across the street. Slowly, the notable names etched on the granite markers fade into oblivion as rabbits make their homes among the skeletons of former statesmen.

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