Cemeteries are memorial gardens, tranquil places to reflect on life. They are the gardens we lovingly tend in order to remain connected to the past. We take care of the cemeteries, erect thoughtful markers, visit the graves, place flowers and other decorations at appropriate times of the year, and generally show the respect which is due for our ancestors and loved ones.
Throughout time, places of burial have been selected with care. When separate burials were called for, during the westward movement or before cemeteries were established, a high place overlooking a scenic area or a secluded spot among trees might be selected. In a letter dated June 15, 1850 from Belle Prairie Upper Miss., missionary Elizabeth Ayer writes: “Dearly beloved sister, It is a long time since I have written to you and in this changing world you will not be surprised to hear that some changes have passed over us. We have changed our place of residence, and have been called to part with our dear Frederic. He died last August (1849) of mild Typhus Fever, occasioned by severe and repeated exposure while on our journey to this place.” Frederic was thirteen years old. It is said that he was buried under a shade tree in the Ayer yard, although no marker identifies the spot. Later, a small cemetery was established nearby for the relatives of the Ayers who came to settle at their mission in Belle Prairie. It is now surrounded by a fence and lies within Belle Prairie Park.
Morrison County’s cemeteries are historical documents in themselves. The gravestones can tell the ethnic makeup of a community or congregation, mortality rates, when there were epidemics, personal interests of the deceased, military service, and familial relationships, in addition to the obvious birth and death dates. The earliest dates found on gravestones is an indication of when the community or congregation was founded. We have seen quite a variety of grave markers as part of the project to locate, study and index the many cemeteries in Morrison County, and one seems to be just as meaningful as the next. Among the many types are wire crosses, wooden crosses, headstones made of marble, and granite headstones with pictures of trucks and snowmobiles. A long-standing tradition among some faiths is to imbed an oval shaped porcelain portrait into the stone, either a picture of the deceased or one that is religious.
Elaborate iron gates and stone pillars often mark the entrance to a cemetery while decorative fencing embraces the grounds. Community cemeteries in Morrison County were given picturesque names like Oak Hill, Riverside, Roseland, or Pine Tree. Names such as Sacred Heart, Calvary, or Holy Angels, reflect ties to Christian churches.
Celebrations and observances to honor those who have died date back for centuries. Little Falls has customarily held a Memorial Day parade honoring those who have lost their lives in service of the United States. Marching units have consisted of American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars units, Little Falls school bands, and youth organizations including Boy Scouts and Campfire. Lives lost at sea have been honored by the tossing of a wreath into the Mississippi River from the Broadway bridge. Small communities throughout the county continue to hold Memorial Day services, with guest speakers giving patriotic messages and color guard ceremonies at the cemeteries. Originally, Memorial Day was called Decoration Day. Lilacs, usually in full bloom in late May, were placed on graves.
Everyone has relatives, friends and loved ones who are buried somewhere and whose lives are remembered. Their final resting place may be as elaborate as a marble mausoleum in one of the more notable cemeteries, or as simple as a plain grave in a country cemetery, with only a very elementary wire cross to mark the site. An epitaph on a stone dated l841 in The Old Dutch Burying Ground of Sleepy Hollow in Tarrytown, New York, bids us to give thought to these special gardens of memory and what they mean. Engraved as a lasting reminder is the following:
Laid in the dust she must abide,
Thus sleeping by her husband’s side
Ye children living come and see
Where both your once loved parents be.
By Jan Warner
Copyright 1996, Morrison County Historical Society