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Planned cemetery buried in bureaucracy

'Green' plan meets host of new barriers

Born in western Cloquet, Vern Simula wants to return to his home county when it's his time to go. He's already made a burial shroud and developed an advanced funeral directive on how he wants to be buried.

Until recently, the 90-year-old living in Morris, Minnesota, had chosen a proposed green burial cemetery in Blackhoof Township, near Barnum, where wary residents and local and state lawmakers have cooperated to put a halt to the cemetery's progress.

"I want a simple, traditional burial," said Simula, a practicing Unitarian Universalist. "I have problems with cremation and the ostentation of traditional funerals, as well as ecological concerns. ... I want to have the choice of buying the kind of funeral service I want that's in line with my values and my beliefs."

Simula objects to the use of a concrete vault, and last month visited the proposed green burial cemetery in Blackhoof Township, calling it "lovely."

But burials on 20 acres of county land owned by Loving Earth Memorial Gardens are on hold for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is a moratorium approved by the state legislature as part of an omnibus health bill in May. This week, MinnPost examined the now-statewide issue with a retelling of Carlton County's role.

In that story, a Muslim leader, Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, called the moratorium a "careless decision."

Islam is far from the only religion practicing simpler burials, ones that don't use embalming fluid and sometimes require a person's remains to be in contact with the earth.

The Pine Knot, which began reporting on the controversy last fall, found one of the owners of Loving Earth Memorial Gardens at the site last week. Pitchfork in hand, sweating under the sun, Matt Connell was applying wood mulch over hayfields on the site, a pastoral property located along Pioneer Road.

"I've been out here a lot lately," said Connell, of Crystal, Minnesota. "I need it. Things have been really stressful. The county refused to file our plat - flat out refused."

On top of the state's green burial moratorium, Connell maintained the county is arguing his business amounts to a public cemetery and not a private religious cemetery, which are treated differently under state law. Connell and his business partner, Ed Bixby, of Marshallville, New Jersey, claim an affiliation to the nondenominational Universal Life Church, based in California.

"They got all bent out of shape," Connell said of the county. "(But) we're not a public cemetery, we're a 501(c)(3) tax exempt religious organization."

County Attorney Lauri Ketola declined to address the matter other than telling the newspaper: "The county will record all recordable plats presented to the Recorder's Office. I cannot speak to specifics of any particular plat presented."

Matt Arnold is a next-door neighbor to Loving Earth. He shared Loving Earth's proposed plat, which features hundreds of burial sites projected along trails planned for the site. Arnold objects to burial sites adjacent to a spring-fed pond on the site, and outlined a series of other issues he has with the cemetery, including the greenness of a cemetery that would accept remains from far and wide, the improbability of remains surfacing, the perpetuity of adding a cemetery to the neighborhood, and the fact that Loving Earth seems to have pivoted to allow cremains services as soon as this fall.

But the heart of the matter seems simpler than that.

"It's not agricultural plain and simple," Arnold said. "We still follow the agricultural rules around here. Every single one of us minus Matt (Connell)."

Arnold also features a business on his property. Among the hen houses and barns is another facility, one he uses to manufacture electronic organs for churches. He has one employee.

"He's looking in all the wrong places," Arnold said of Connell. "He's focusing on green burial being a positive situation, which in the right circumstances it could be."

Carlton County has since adjusted its zoning ordinance in an effort to prevent future situations such as the one in Blackhoof Township.

"There's about 300 of us that are pretty strongly opposed to this," Arnold said. "For me personally, if I'm going to go into business, I'd want to have the community on my side."

Connell objected to that line of thinking, pointing out that everyone's a Libertarian until they have to tolerate somebody doing something different. He's been confronted on the property by neighbors, chased by drones while working on the site, and dirt bikers have carved a figure eight into the terrain, he said. He's called the authorities more than once.

"It's a lot of money and an immense amount of time and the emotional toll that it has taken is huge," Connell said. "I'm not geared for battle."

But he's fighting anyway. He says the moratorium was aimed "specifically to stop us." He and Bixby, Connel said, have brought in their lawyer and are weighing legal routes.

The lawmakers representing Carlton County weighed in regarding the moratorium. Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, and Rep. Jeff Dotseth, R-Kettle River, both authored amendments seeking to halt green burials at new sites, and received across the aisle support from others, including Sen. Jen McEwen, DFL-Duluth.

"There really is no oversight for private cemeteries in Minnesota, and the people of Carlton County recognize that issue," Rarick said in a statement to the newspaper. "The temporary green burial moratorium would allow us to look at some minimum standards that should be put in place, so we can ensure that soil and water safety are not compromised for local communities and residents."

Dotseth added that he wanted "local control" to be part of the ultimate solution.

"The temporary moratorium on green cemeteries provides us with time to thoroughly evaluate this issue and determine what's best for our communities," he said in a statement. "It's always better to measure twice and cut once, and that's my approach to this matter as well."

For now, Connell is soldiering forward. He maintains he's broken no law and done nothing wrong since buying the land for $80,000 in August 2022. In spring, he planted 1,200 seedlings on the site, but most succumbed to drought conditions. He'll try again in the fall, and also plant a local variety of wildflowers, which he said needed a season to "stratify" under the winter's snow.

"If you take the burial aspect out of this, we are putting an arboretum here," Connell said. "We are putting a natural space that is open to all people for trails, for relaxation. It's a beautiful thing. It's also a matter of principle at this point. If I let them bully me away, what kind of precedent would that set?"

Connell also referenced the aging Simula.

"He's not a young man," Connell said. "If my friend Vern dies before this thing gets resolved, I'm not going to be happy about it. It's one of the most important things to me right now."

Simula said he's planned an alternative burial for himself if that's the case. He also called the county's resistance to filing the plat "a bogus claim."

"I empathize with the neighbors who have objections to it," Simula said. "I know the feeling; I've had the same thing. There's a 10,000 cow dairy farm 2-3 miles from my house, and another couple thousand [head] pig farm. I wish they weren't there. ... But they're both legal companies, incorporated by good folks who run them and are respected in the community. I accept it's their legal right."