ALTURA, Minn. — The newest grave in the Whitewater Falls cemetery is from the 1940s, but Matt Connell has found evidence of more recent activity there.

“There’s probably 50 years of teenagers’ partying trash out there,” he said.

Connell is with Destination Destiny, a New Jersey-based company that offers "natural burials." Natural burial is an alternative burial method that does not involve embalming, concrete casket vaults or modern caskets.

Destination Destiny plans to offer the environmentally friendly burial alternative at the Whitewater Falls Cemetery.

However, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources contests the company’s claim to the cemetery and is moving to block the plan.

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The Whitewater Cemetery Monday, April 26, 2021, near Elba. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
The Whitewater Cemetery Monday, April 26, 2021, near Elba. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

Whitewater Falls Cemetery sits in the Whitewater Wildlife Management Area in southeast Minnesota. The cemetery was established in 1867 adjacent to a long-gone town of the same name in Whitewater Township in Winona County. The Whitewater Falls Cemetery Association, which ran the cemetery and oversaw burials there, has been defunct for decades. Destination Destiny has taken over the Whitewater Cemetery Association. In addition to filing for ownership of the association, the company filed for “adverse possession” of the property.

“Once a cemetery, always a cemetery”

The title, which was under the names George and Phoebe Stoning and the Whitewater Cemetery Association, has not yet been filed with Winona County Recorder’s office at the behest of the Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman while the DNR challenges the legal claims.

Reviving a disused cemetery is a practice that has been successful in other parts of the U.S., said Ed Bixby, founder of Destination Destiny and president of the Green Burial Council.

It’s not uncommon for cemeteries to fall into a legal limbo. Towns or church parishes that established them fold. Eventually, there’s no longer a living title holder to the cemetery.

Matt Connell rakes the Whitewater Cemetery Monday, April 26, 2021, near Elba. Connell is working to restore the Whitewater Cemetery and establish natural burials at the site. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
Matt Connell rakes the Whitewater Cemetery Monday, April 26, 2021, near Elba. Connell is working to restore the Whitewater Cemetery and establish natural burials at the site. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

“The cemetery falls into a title abyss,” Bixby said.

Some cemeteries fall into disrepair. Others receive maintenance. (DNR staff have been mowing Whitewater Falls Cemetery.) Regardless of their fate, the land remains a cemetery.

“Once a cemetery, always a cemetery,” Bixby said.

Even if another organization claims ownership of the cemetery, there’s still only one use designated for the land under most state laws.

That’s fine with Bixby.

“What makes these places so special is the monumentation that exists,” he said.

Matt Connell is working to restore the Whitewater Cemetery and establish natural burials at the site. Connell is pictured Monday, April 26, 2021, at Whitewater Cemetery near Elba. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
Matt Connell is working to restore the Whitewater Cemetery and establish natural burials at the site. Connell is pictured Monday, April 26, 2021, at Whitewater Cemetery near Elba. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

After filing for the title to the cemetery, Connell began work to clean the burial grounds and surrounding area designated by the title.

He cleared trash and raked debris. He has been clearing invasive honeysuckle and other non-native plants that surround the grounds.

He said he plans to place upright some of the knocked over grave markers.

“It’s nice to be out here and reflect and envision what we’re trying to do out here,” he said.

Connell said he plans to cultivate native plants on and around the grounds and keep a walking path clear for people who visit the grounds.

None of the existing graves will be disturbed or moved. Connell said he plans to dig new graves himself.

“It’s not just a hole,” he said. “You have to dig it like the person who’s going into it is standing there watching; it should look like Michelangelo dug it.”

Connell said he estimates there’s room for another 300 burials at the site.

Matt Connell rakes the Whitewater Cemetery Monday, April 26, 2021, near Elba. Connell is working to restore the Whitewater Cemetery and establish natural burials at the site. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
Matt Connell rakes the Whitewater Cemetery Monday, April 26, 2021, near Elba. Connell is working to restore the Whitewater Cemetery and establish natural burials at the site. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

Legal challenge

Grant Wilson, central region director of the DNR, said agency officials don’t believe Minnesota law allows adverse possession of a cemetery.

On May 11, Winona County Recorder informed Bixby that the cemetery association’s claim on the cemetery had not been filed on advice from Sonneman. Sonneman cites Minnesota law stating that anyone occupying a cemetery can’t claim title to the cemetery based on their occupancy. She was not available for comment.

Bixby said the company filed for “adverse possession” to only have their claim on record.

“The (Whitewater Cemetery Association) exists and we own the association,” Bixby said. “We have possession of the property.”

A May 12 letter to Bixby from David Olfelt, director of the DNR Fish and Wildlife Division, informed the pair that they won’t be allowed to use a wildlife management area parking lot adjacent to the cemetery for funerals.

Wilson said the DNR has been maintaining the cemetery and three other historic cemeteries within the Wildlife Management Area, but notes the DNR doesn’t own that cemetery or the others.

“The DNR is most concerned with managing the Whitewater Wildlife Management Area and the potential impacts to and from the surrounding land,” he said.

Green burials

Nontraditional burials are catching on as more green cemeteries and hybrid burial grounds are established, according to the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit that certifies green and hybrid burials.

Once operational, the Whitewater Falls Cemetery would be considered “hybrid” because it’s not known if the previous burials used nontraditional green methods of foregoing embalming, metal caskets and concrete vaults.

Green cemeteries look different from conventional ones. The only headstones that will be at Whitewater Falls will be the ones already marking graves. Green burial plots are intended to blend in with the natural landscape and are usually marked with small, flat markers. The result looks more like a park than a graveyard.

According to Cornell University and Greensprings Natural Preserve in Newfield, N.Y., burials in the U.S. each year put into the ground about:

  • 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid.

  • 20 million board feet of hardwood, including tropical woods.

  • 17,000 tons of copper, bronze.

  • 64,500 tons of steel.

Connell said he never envisioned himself to be a gravedigger. That’s still not how he would describe his role. Right now, he’s doing more cleanup and landscaping work than any digging.

Connell spoke as he surveyed the honeysuckle, currants and irises growing in the cemetery.

“The honeysuckle will go,” Connell said. “The currants, you could do a lot worse than currants.”

Connell added he plans to cultivate native plants that benefit pollinators.

Matt Connell rakes the Whitewater Cemetery Monday, April 26, 2021, near Elba. Connell is working to restore the Whitewater Cemetery and establish natural burials at the site. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
Matt Connell rakes the Whitewater Cemetery Monday, April 26, 2021, near Elba. Connell is working to restore the Whitewater Cemetery and establish natural burials at the site. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

The burial ground itself sits on a hill overlooking wetlands. A pair of trumpeter swans swam in the muddy water as Connell raked and pulled weeds.

Bixby said the spot would be ideal for people who enjoy the natural area and want to leave this earth without contributing to environmental degradation.

“Think of all the people who like to hunt, fish or hike out there,” Bixby said. “Wouldn’t they love to be buried out there?”

Wilson declined to comment on the proposed use of the land and its potential environmental impact.

“We haven’t really considered the use,” he said.

The sticking point is ownership, he said.

“We’re still in the early stages of understanding how this is all going to play out,” Wilson said.