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Planned green cemetery advances despite persistent resident concerns

Loving Earth Memorial Gardens, located in Blackhoof Township, looks to bring a natural burial option to Carlton County residents and other in the area, but has run into concerns from neighboring residents.

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Loving Earth Memorial Gardens is a planned green cemetery located at 3133 Pioneer Road in Blackhoof Township.
Contributed / Matt Connell
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CARLTON — The proposed green cemetery that has stirred up concerns in Blackhoof Township is on track to move forward.

Loving Earth Memorial Gardens, 3133 Pioneer Road in Barnum, is the third documented site owner Matt Connell has attempted to pursue, based on a Cloquet Pine Journal review.

In 2021, Connell said he had two brief attempts at revitalizing small cemeteries he claims were abandoned and severely neglected in Whitewater, Minnesota and Amery, Wisconsin.

When it came to finding the cemeteries, Connell said he stumbled upon the cemetery in Whitewater from a path on a nature trail and the one in Amery on the way to a family member's cabin.

Neither cemetery had an owner identification or parcel identification, according to Connell, and he said he worked to "resurrect" the cemetery association to care for the cemetery and honor the dead.

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Connell said some residents were concerned that he would add to the cemeteries, but he said he wanted to preserve the historic sites, and possibly acquire more land to add a green cemetery to them.

Connell's plans for the cemetery in Whitewater were halted by the Winona County Attorney’s Office, which was unsure of the legal claims to the cemetery, according to a Rochester Post Bulletin article. Connell did not follow specific steps to revive a cemetery, according to the Post Bulletin's reporting.

In Amery, officials decided that the cemetery belonged to Lincoln Township, and Connell was asked to stay off the property, according to a story in the Amery Free Press.

Controversy

While Loving Earth Memorial Gardens is technically his third attempt at starting a green cemetery, it will be Connell's first from scratch.

However, the endeavor has brought concerns from neighboring residents.

Community members have spoken against the cemetery at Carlton County Board and Blackhoof Township meetings.

Concerns included increased traffic, the mental toll of remains possibly being unearthed and the environmental impact remains would have in the area. A total of 106 residents signed and submitted a petition against the cemetery to the Carlton County Board of Commissioners.

Bruce Soukkala, a neighbor and organizer of the petition, said at a Sept. 28 County Board meeting that he was not against green cemeteries but wanted it to be in a better location.

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"We as a community request it be put in an appropriate location rather than its current location," he said.

Connell said his intention with Loving Earth has always been peaceful and good.

"I want to help serve the community," he said.

While County Board members have stated they want the best outcome for both parties, legally their hands are tied. According to Heather Cunningham, Carlton County's Zoning and Environmental Services administrator, the property is zoned as A-2 and allows for permitted use of cemeteries.

Connell's partner was contacted by a real estate agent to see if they were interested in selling the property for $80,000, which is what they paid for it. They countered with $350,000, but did not hear a reply from the agent. Connell added that the property is not for sale.

Connell said he had not anticipated the controversy a green burial site would bring to the area, but as something new, he said he needs to help answer lingering questions from the community.

Neighbors to the property have continued to voice their concerns with the county, asking for officials to assist them by starting a moratorium on green cemeteries or helping to facilitate an alternative solution.

Jeffrey Boucher, chief deputy attorney for the county attorney's office, said at an Oct. 11 meeting that he would not recommend a moratorium given that a cemetery is a permitted use for the property.

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"We would not advise a moratorium based on the wording of the ordinance, the zoning and permissible uses of this particular site, and based on the potential for litigation," he said.

County board Chairman Gary Peterson said the county needs to protect itself legally and should not open itself up to a lawsuit by putting a moratorium in place. Peterson added that not only did the county attorney's office look into the topic, but officials also had a private attorney look into it and they came to the same conclusion.

Natural burials in Minnesota

Ron Gjerde, secretary and treasurer of the Minnesota Association of Cemeteries, said natural burials are not a large movement in the state and said there are at least two other green cemeteries in Minnesota, according to the Green Burial Council.

He added there are some hybrid cemeteries in the state that allow for both more conventional burials as well as natural burials.

Products associated with green burials are becoming more popular with biodegradable caskets made out of hemp or seaweed, for example.

"It is definitely more involved than it ever has been," Gjerde said.

Natural burials were the main way of burying the dead before the civil war, as embalming was started to get the remains of soldiers back home, he said.

While Gjerde said green burials are growing, he has seen a bigger shift in Minnesota toward cremation.

"A lot of people are choosing cremation and not choosing cemeteries of any kind," he said.

Loving Earth Memorial Gardens

Connell, who lives in Crystal, Minnesota, explained that he came to the idea of starting a green cemetery after watching a TED Talk on alternative methods for handling human remains.

"I wanted a way to get out of my cubicle life," he said.

Connell said a green cemetery, and starting one himself, is a way to give back as well as a way to "get right with God."

"I felt like this was a natural draw for me," he said. "This was a way I could truly help people."

After doing more research, Connell found a mentor in Ed Bixby of Steelman Town Cemetery in New Jersey, another green burial site.

Now Connell is a partner with Bixby for the Blackhoof site, with the title under Steelman Town Cemetery.

Connell said Loving Earth will offer people a green alternative compared to traditional burials or cremation.

Green, or natural burials, are fuel to the land, according to Connell. As the cemetery grows, he envisions the land with wild berries and flowers.

While people will be able to purchase plots, Connell said the idea is for it to look natural and it will not have any kind of headstones or markers.

The land survey for the property has been completed and Connell said there are a couple more steps to be completed before he can start to sell plots.

Connell said he intends to shovel up the graves when the time comes, as the whole process is green and does not involve any kind of machinery.

"That is what is so attractive to people," he said. "It is more mindful to the environmental impact on the day to day."

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