Rural cemetary vandalized over the Memorial Day weekend

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 6/7/00.

Burr Oak Cemetery Memorial Day is meant to be a day to remember loved ones who have passed on. Family and friends typically clean up and decorate the graves of their loved ones for this weekend.

So, the timing for vandalism to the Burr Oak Cemetery couldn't have been worse. Either late Saturday or early Sunday morning, some person or persons broke two 19th century gravestones, which dated back to the 1880s. They also knocked down the flag and broke the flagpole in another spot.

The damage was found on Sunday morning and reported to the cemetery board, who in turn reported the matter to the Meeker County Sheriff's Department.

"It isn't the first time it's happened and it probably won't be the last," said Roger Flanders, the vice chair of the Burr Oak Cemetery Board.

The damage is the second this spring for this rural cemetery several miles south of Lake Koronis. A month or so ago, two other gravestones were broken and found lying on the ground. One of the headstones that was damaged earlier this spring was on the grave of Flanders' aunt, who died as a child.

Rural cemeteries are by nature vulnerable to unwanted visitors. "It shouldn't be," said Verrol Smith, secretary for the cemetery board. "It should be a sacred place. And then they took the flag down and laid it on the ground."

Both Smith and Flanders, who have each served on the cemetery board since the 1960s, also served in the military, so they found grounding the flag equally offensive.

They said the cemetery used to have a gate and lock, but the lock wasn't used. "We don't want to lock it," Flanders explained, "because there are visitors here throughout the year."

While several other rural cemeteries reported no property damage due to vandalism, one local family felt violated the weekend before Memorial Day. Richard and Beth Sturtz brought flowers to the graves of his parents and brother on Friday night, May 19. Their son, Josh, 10, picked out the flowers for his grandparents' and uncle's graves.

"The next morning," Beth said, "we went out to water them and they were missing."

Josh, she said, took the disappearance very hard. She resented the violation of the sacredness of the cemetery, and how the incident discouraged her son from honoring the graves of his relatives. When she and her husband replanted, Josh refused because he thought someone would just take the flowers again.

"That's the lowest thing someone can do, I think," she added of cemetery vandalism. "To me, it shows no respect."

Jeff Norlin, the chief deputy for Meeker County, agreed, saying cemetery vandalism was a "cowardly act." Norlin said the Burr Oak incident is under investigation by the Meeker County Sheriff's Department.

Norlin said that public help was needed to solve this case and on all cases. The biggest help, he said, was prompt reporting of anything suspicious or strange. He said people shouldn't assume things are okay or that someone else will alert the authorities.

Al Hein reported that increased local patrolling by the Paynesville Police Department has cut down littering and unwanted visitors at the Paynesville Cemetery. The cemetery opens at dawn and closes at dusk.

"We just kind of keep an extra eye on it," said Bruce Elfering of the Paynes-ville Police Department. One task is to keep cars from the cemetery after dark.

The damage at Burr Oak will need to be fixed, but the repairs may take some time. The cemetery holds a voluntary clean-up day each spring, when most of the maintenance for the grounds is done. They contract for groundskeeping throughout the summer, and would rather spend their funds on improvements to the cemetery and not for repairs.

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