A $20,000 contribution to the ailing Evergreen Cemetery Association may help breathe new life into the organization that oversees two of the area’s largest cemeteries.

Acting as the township board for the First Assessment District, the Crow Wing County Board voted unanimously Tuesday, Nov. 10, in favor of the one-time funding allotment for the association, which is otherwise projected to run out of money in the next two to three years. The contribution is earmarked for use at the Memorial Gardens Cemetery, located on County Highway 3 north of Brainerd in the unorganized territory the county board governs.

In offering a proposal to shore up the cemetery association last month, County Administrator Tim Houle noted a contribution on behalf of the township may increase pressure on the city of Brainerd to offer up dollars in support of Evergreen Cemetery, the nearly 150-year-old graveyard in which some of the city’s forebears and former Minnesota Gov. C. Elmer Anderson lie.

Duane Blanck (left) and Fred Casey of the Evergreen Cemetery Association outline the financial trouble faced by the organization in a plea for funding to the Crow Wing County Board Oct. 20. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch
Duane Blanck (left) and Fred Casey of the Evergreen Cemetery Association outline the financial trouble faced by the organization in a plea for funding to the Crow Wing County Board Oct. 20. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

During a lengthy discussion Oct. 20 of the dire financial situation in which the association finds itself, cemetery representatives told commissioners a cultural shift away from earthen burials toward cremation is one major factor causing the budget to bleed out. Competition from veterans cemeteries, which offer free burial plots to military veterans and family members, is another challenge, explained Duane Blanck, president of the Evergreen Cemetery Association Board of Trustees.

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What happens if a cemetery association runs out of money? While state law isn’t so clear on the fate of Evergreen Cemetery because of its location within the city of Brainerd, the responsibilities of townships are spelled out. In the case of default, the management of Memorial Gardens Cemetery and all its occupants would fall to the First Assessment District.

RELATED: On life support: Cemetery board seeks support as funds bleed out

Houle told commissioners in October the inevitable takeover in the case of default meant the township should expect to spend money either way on the cemetery. Doing so now, rather than waiting for the budgetary situation to grow even more desperate, might help to right the ship in time to keep the volunteer association board in charge. But, Houle noted, contributing county tax dollars rather than those collected at the township level may open the door for a barrage of funding requests. There are more than 70 public and private cemeteries in the county, according to the cemetery directory on the MNGenWeb Project website.

“I think it is clearer that if the Evergreen Cemetery Association were to go belly up, that the Memorial Gardens portion of it would probably revert to us,” Houle said. “ … Waiting to act is going to, I think, make it just more difficult for all of us to act. I am suggesting that if you are inclined to doing something here, do it as the unorganized township.”

County Administrator Tim Houle discusses the options for offering financial support to the Evergreen Cemetery Association during a county committee of the whole meeting Oct. 20. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch
County Administrator Tim Houle discusses the options for offering financial support to the Evergreen Cemetery Association during a county committee of the whole meeting Oct. 20. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Houle said Tuesday if the board commits to a one-time contribution now, it can revisit the idea of an ongoing contribution next summer. The $20,000 agreed upon will be part of the 2021 budget for the First Assessment District.

Commissioner Paul Koering said as a township officer, he supported the allotment, echoing his Oct. 20 comments during which he called boosting the cemeteries a “moral responsibility.” But Koering said he doesn’t want to see the county itself contribute, and he doesn’t want the funding to hinge on the city of Brainerd’s commitment to supporting Evergreen.

RELATED: Tiptoe through the tombstones

“I do not support us acting like the federal government,” Koering said. “ … I don’t think that’s our responsibility to add strings to giving that money. I know that if the city of Brainerd, if it was in the reverse and the city of Brainerd was doing that to us, I certainly wouldn’t like it.”

Chairman Steve Barrows clarified that contingency wasn’t on the table with the resolution, which received full board support Tuesday.

Evergreen Cemetery Board Member Duane Blanck leads one of the historical walking tours of Evergreen Cemetery Tuesday. This year's Brainerd History Week tour traces the final resting places of prominent Brainerd residents who owned homes on the north side of Brainerd.  (Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls) Video
Evergreen Cemetery Board Member Duane Blanck leads one of the historical walking tours of Evergreen Cemetery Tuesday. This year's Brainerd History Week tour traces the final resting places of prominent Brainerd residents who owned homes on the north side of Brainerd. (Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls) Video

A changing financial climate

Projections estimate an annual income of just under $129,000 from 2020-24, 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, 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.

Houle said his own analysis of the financial records indicates the association will be in financial trouble even earlier than that, perhaps as soon as mid-2022.

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, a perpetual care fund and community donations.

The perpetual care fund of just over $600,000 is built up by allocating 20% of lot sales 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.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey.