Longtime Eden Prairie Cemetery caretaker Mike Rogers takes a few steps between gravestones before stopping in a spot shaded by a tree on a warm afternoon last fall.
Established in 1864, the hillside cemetery at 8810 Eden Prairie Road celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2014. Miller Park, Staring Lake, Anderson Lake and Mitchell Road all got their names from the pioneering families buried there.
“It just is Eden Prairie,” Rogers said of the cemetery. “Of all the things left in Eden Prairie, this is one of the few that are the same way as it was before.”
Call him caretaker or sexton. He’s okay with either job title describing his role managing the cemetery. Rogers’ duties are wide-ranging, from groundskeeper to recordkeeper to overseeing burials. If he’s not doing it himself, he’s supervising. There is always something to do. His dirt-stained clothes provide a glimpse of how his day has gone so far.
“This has been my life for the past 20 years or so,” said Rogers, who also is board president of the Eden Prairie Cemetery Association (EPCA). “I love this place. I love all the work that I’ve done here, loved all the people that I’ve had the opportunity to work with.”
Now that he plans to retire, the cemetery’s future is very much on his mind.
The 68-year-old lifelong Eden Prairie resident’s retirement plans have been in the works for a while. He doesn’t have a firm departure date. That depends on whether city leaders will agree for the city to take ownership of the cemetery from the EPCA. Rogers said the EPCA has signed off on the possibility.
Rogers admits the day-to-day work just got to be too much. He had back surgery about four years ago.
“At my sixth-month checkup, the doc looks at me and goes, ‘Tell me what you do again?’ ‘Well, I run a cemetery.’ He says ‘Is that like with shovels and stuff?’ and I said ‘Not anymore. I hired that out,’” Rogers recalled. “He said that’s the perfect answer.”
Family health issues aren’t why Rogers is retiring, but those have made his decision easier.
“I did what I could for as long as I could,” he said. “I feel bad about (leaving). But then again, I have to do what’s best for myself and my family.”
A family tradition
Three generations of Rogers’ have tended to the cemetery since the early 1970s.
That tradition began when Rogers’ great-uncle Harry, who ran a fruit stand where Marshalls Farm Market is today, took on the caretaking duties from Homer Raguet, who lived on a farm where Grace Church now sits.
After Harry, his nephew Bert took over. Mike, who is Bert’s son, succeeded him.
“The joke was Dad was behind Harry keeping track of everything, and I was behind Dad when he got sick,” Rogers said. “I started taking over stuff for (Bert) around 2000. He lasted until 2003. The board said, ‘You know how everything works. You do it.’ That’s how I got the job.”
The Rogers don’t own the cemetery, he explained.
It is run by a non-profit corporation, in which lot owners elect a three-member board to conduct association business. Rogers has been board president for about 18 years.
Rogers’ ancestors are buried there, including Harry and Bert. So is Rogers’ great-grandfather, John, who came to Eden Prairie in 1897 “down to his last dime” in search of good farmland. He stayed until his death in 1959.
“We have just been trustees and board members for years and years,” Rogers said of his family. “It’s been kind of a community responsibility for us to a degree.”
Plans are in the works for EPCA to transfer the cemetery’s ownership to the city. If that occurs, the city’s parks department will take over its maintenance and operations.
The City Council would have to vote to accept the transfer for that to occur. An official transfer would happen after a closing or similar land transfer. That would officially disband the EPCA.
Jay Lotthammer, the city’s parks and recreation director, said the council could discuss the proposal in February. (He is still waiting for additional information from the EPCA before officially placing it on the agenda.)
“We want to help (the council) understand some of the financial aspects associated with this and some of the workload drivers that will impact city staff,” Lotthammer said. “We also want to help them understand some of the past policies and practices that we as a city would be taking on.”
Mayor Ron Case said the Rogers family has done a “phenomenal job” over the years of maintaining the cemetery.
“I know (Mike Rogers) wants to ensure all the hard work done by generations of his family will be valued and continued, and I think the city’s protective umbrella will ensure that,” Case said.
If approved, it would be the second cemetery owned by the city. Pleasant Hill Cemetery became city property in 1987. That happened after volunteer interest in continuing its operation through a cemetery association waned.
Lotthammer said one benefit to owning both is that it clears up any confusion on which the city runs.
“Because that is named Eden Prairie Cemetery, many people have assumed it is the cemetery operated by the city,” he said. “And because the other one is Pleasant Hill Cemetery, they don’t always assume the city operates it. They always find us, and they always find Mike, but this might make it a little bit easier to know where to go directly.”
Looking toward the future
Rogers is staying in town and has been talking to city officials about how he can “best help the folks who will be overseeing the general management” of the cemetery.
He takes pride in keeping the cemetery looking its best and hopes the city continues those efforts.
“I look at this place right now, and I look at the condition it’s in, and that’s the way I want to see it in the future,” he said. “At least until I’m here. After I’m here permanently, then it doesn’t matter because I won’t be able to yell about it anyways.”
Rogers has three file cabinets filled with maps, historical data and old deeds he will turn over to the city.
“I have documentation on exactly how a stone goes in, exactly how a burial is done, how you go about it, all that sort of stuff,” he said. “Those are things I hope they continue to use. For this cemetery, they work. I’m not saying they work for a different cemetery, but I know they work here.”
Eventually, Lotthammer said the city might explore having similar policies at both cemeteries.
“I don’t foresee any drastic changes,” he said. “We would do an analysis and comparison of policies between the two cemeteries. It might make sense to make slight adjustments and make certain areas really similar if not the same.”
Rogers said he will miss his managing the cemetery. He views his stewardship there as a way to give back to his hometown.
“This is what 150 some odd years of a cemetery looks like, and it should stay this way for another 150 some years,” he said.
Empathy is key to running a cemetery
Mike Rogers said empathy is a crucial attribute to managing a cemetery. He learned that in his role as Eden Prairie Cemetery caretaker.
“There’s been a lot of neat things that have happened here, a lot of bad things, too,” he said.
Rogers corrects himself.
“I wouldn’t say bad things,” he said. “You feel bad for a lot of families.”
He said he’s glad he worked for 12 years as a security officer at Hennepin County Medical Center.
“I learned more about empathy and understanding and bad stuff there, and how to deal with things and people and all that sort of stuff,” said Rogers, who also served as an Eden Prairie firefighter for 32 years.
In his job managing the cemetery, he said you meet “some of the nicest people, but you meet them at some of the crappiest times of their lives.”
People deal with death differently.
“There are people who come here and say, ‘Yep, we’re going to bury Fred,’ and that’s it,” he said. “And there are other people who have kids who have died unexpectedly. Parents will be here for days (after the funeral). You feel so bad. There’s a certain amount of empathy you need for this job.”