Evergreen Cemetery is hurting.

With an increase in cremations and competitors and a decrease in traditional burials, the nearly 150-year-old northeast Brainerd cemetery is in danger of running out of money soon. At the current rate, financial projections predict a deficit in about three years.

“By 2023, we’re hurting unless things change one way or another,” Duane Blanck, president of the Evergreen Cemetery Association Board of Trustees, said Wednesday, Aug. 26.

The board — which governs both Evergreen Cemetery and Memorial Gardens Cemetery on County Highway 3 to the north — invited county and city officials to a meeting to discuss the situation and any possible assistance or partnerships.

“For us to be able to maintain the legacy of Evergreen Cemetery … we just are at the point where we need to be asking, from the city and the county, for some financial assistance,” Blanck said.

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A changing financial climate

Projections estimate an annual income of just under $129,000 from 2020-2024, with expenses ranging from about $169,000 to roughly $190,000 a year. The association had $163,076.91 in the bank as of Jan. 1, 2020, but if expenses and earnings continue at the same rate, there will be a deficit of $21,173 by the end of 2023. That would increase to $64,143 the following year.

The Evergreen Cemetery Association is a nonprofit 501(c)(13) — a category specifically for public cemeteries — that does not receive government funding. Revenue comes from lot or grave sales, burial fees, monument and marker setting fees, perpetual care fund and community donations.

The perpetual care fund of just over $600,000 is built up by allocating 20% of lot sales to it annually and is governed by state statute. The earnings from the fund can be used for operational costs and maintenance, but the principal cannot be spent.

Income from burials has dwindled in recent years, as cremations become more common. According to the Cremation Association of North America, between 60-70% of Minnesota deaths resulted in cremations in 2019. And only about a quarter of those ashes, Blanck said, are buried in cemeteries.

Another impact on Evergreen Cemetery is the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery in Little Falls, which attracts a high number of burials because there is no cost for veterans to be buried there.

“And not that we take some issue, that that isn’t important,” Blanck said. “I’m a veteran of the Marine Corps. I can appreciate a veterans cemetery. But it’s operated by state taxes, and sometimes it becomes unfair competition for us.”

In some cases, families will buy plots at Evergreen but if one member is a veteran, that person and their spouse may end up being buried at the veterans cemetery instead.

Blanck said it’s a lengthy process for the cemetery association to reclaim plots that were purchased but never got used because the buyers were buried elsewhere.

Not many plots are left to sell at Evergreen, but that doesn’t mean the cemetery is nearly full. Many plots have already been purchased by families but have not yet been used. In Blanck’s case, he said his family purchased eight gravesites for his parents, siblings and their spouses. Only three of them are in use so far.

Plenty of plots are available at Memorial Gardens, but that doesn’t seem to appeal to people the way Evergreen does.

Evergreen Cemetery was organized in 1873 and now sits on more than 40 acres of land with more than 17,000 interments. Memorial Gardens was founded in the 1950s as Knollwood Memorial Gardens, but the developer disappeared in the 1960s. It became part of the Evergreen Cemetery Association the next decade and is the final resting place for about 3,000 remains.

“We do get people that want to pre-plan, and they want to buy a grave, but they want to be at Evergreen. They don’t want to be at Memorial Gardens,” Blanck said. “So we are diligently trying to extend the life of the cemetery.”

To cut down on expenses, cemetery staffing is what the board called bare minimum. In the last 15 years, staff has gone down from a 32-hour executive director to one who only works 20 hours. A full-time assistant superintendent was eliminated, and seasonal workers reduced from five to two. Now, the staff consists of Executive Director Dede Tollefson, who works 20 hours a week, full-time Superintendent Rusty Billman and two seasonal maintenance workers.

“As a board, I think we have turned over every rock and pebble that we can turn over to try to make it operate on a fiscally responsible basis,” board member Fred Casey said. “And I just want the public to understand that we take this job very, very seriously, and we’re doing everything we can to make Evergreen what it can and should be.”

Luckily, though, community volunteers — especially Scout troops — help out with clean-up projects when they can.

“Unfortunately it doesn’t affect our bottom line in terms of money, but it does involve the community,” Blanck said.

Keeping history alive

Commissioner Steve Barrows represented the Crow Wing County Board, and Mayor Dave Badeaux represented the city council, along with City Administrator Jennifer Bergman.

Both Barrows and Badeaux spoke of their personal connections to Evergreen Cemetery.

“I grew up in northeast in this part of the city,” Barrows said. “I have two sons that are now here and a grandpa and grandma, and I’ll have a mom one of these days soon. She’s 94 years old now. So I have a vested interest in this personally.”

Badeaux said his grandfather is buried at Evergreen and when he himself used to live nearby, he often ran through the cemetery for exercise.

“It’s a very calming space,” he said. “And it’s something that’s unique. Parks and public spaces are well defined in how people interact with them, but a cemetery is something that’s very personal. And people can gather from them as they see necessary.”

Barrows suggested the cemetery board give their presentation to the full county board at a committee of the whole meeting, as he can’t speak for all the members. Badeaux said the council would likely be interested in a presentation as well.

“Budgets are always tight, and we’re always trying to squeeze everything out of every nickel we possibly can, but there’s two things to a city — there’s the people and the businesses, but there’s also the space and structure and the history,” Badeaux said. “And if we just ignore the history, then we won’t have the things to lean back on when times get tough. So I think it’s important from a city standpoint. I think it’s important from a county standpoint as well.

From the financial standpoint, Barrows said 2021 looks like it will be a tough year financially, but something might be able to happen in 2022.

“I think it’s good to get ahead of it so we can consider it,” he said.

One of the city council’s September meetings might work best, Bergman said, as 2021 budget talks begin. She suggested the board bring with them a specific request so the council knows what is being asked of them, and Barrows said that would be good at the county level, too.

If the association doesn’t get the funds it needs, the cemeteries’ futures are uncertain. Board members don’t know who will continue maintaining the tens of thousands of gravesites dating back generations.

“It’s not just about the individuals. It’s about the people who have come before us. And your town and your county — or your city — is based off of the people that come here,” Badeaux said. “I always like to say that Brainerd is a city with generations of history. We don’t all have to live here … but people choose to live here because it’s a fantastic place and there’s that connection to our past, and that is very important.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.
Note: This story was updated Sept. 1. to clarify the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery in Little Falls is open only to veterans and their spouses, not to the whole family of veterans.