Volunteers work to clear veterans’ headstones at South St. Paul cemetery


From left, Devin LaManna, Tom Hoppenstedt, Andrew Ritter and Lauri Flatley cleaned headstones at Oak Hill Cemetery Aug. 6. The volunteer group’s been referred to as “The Gravestone Cleaners.” (Hannah Burlingame/Review)

Some of the headstones and memorials are so overgrown only a sliver of them can be seen. Volunteers are working to clear the overgrowth so the names of those who served can be seen again. (photos courtesy Lauri Flatley)

Sometimes the work done is more than just pulling weeds. When this plaque was uncovered, volunteer Ron Erickson saw its broken state and found a replacement plaque with the same quote.

Ritter, 13, joined Hoppenstedt, his grandfather, during one of Hoppenstedt’s visits to clean headstones and decided to get involved in the volunteer effort himself.

Flatley cleaned headstones with her children each Memorial Day for the last six or seven years. This year, she decided to keep the work going after a rainy holiday weekend. (Hannah Burlingame photos/Review)

Seen from below at Oak Hill Cemetery in South St. Paul Aug. 6, a lone figure crouched over a headstone, bucket nearby and putty knife in hand. 

She wasn’t there to harm the headstones and memorials that fill the grounds — rather, she was there to honor those interred by cleaning off their markers. 

The woman, Lauri Flatley, is part of a group some in the area have come to refer to as “The Gravestone Cleaners” — people dedicated to reviving the past by keeping up the headstones and memorials of those who served their country.

 

‘I hear the stories’

Flatley has been cleaning headstones for the last six or seven years, but for most of that time only on Memorial Day with her children.

“It was our Memorial Day tradition that we would come up and clean a row or so of veterans’ graves,” she says. 

This year, the weather didn’t cooperate and the group was rained out. Flatley says she got to thinking about why the effort had to be relegated only to Memorial Day. She decided to make her Memorial Day efforts a year-round project.

“There’s a lot of people [who] want to do good things and want to make a difference but may or may not have ideas of how to do it,” Flatley says. “Maybe this is an easy way of doing that.”

Veteran Tom Hoppenstedt saw Flatley’s Facebook post looking for people who may be interested in helping. As a retiree, Hoppenstedt thought, “What else can I do?” Cleaning off gravestones gave him a chance to get out and do something rather than just sitting around on the computer.

He says he “dragged” his 13-year-old grandson Andrew Ritter along one day, and the teen’s been coming back every since.

“Why a 13-year-old would go with grandpa to do this? It just don’t make sense to me but I love this kid for it,” Hoppenstedt says. “I love him anyway.”

Ritter says he keeps coming back to help because it’s cool to see the stories about veterans on their gravestones — the years they were born and what they did.

“They risked their lives for us so it feels good to do something to give something back to them,” Ritter says.

Another volunteer, Ron Erickson, has always had a passion for cemeteries. As the baby in his family, he went to a lot of funerals. Afterward there was always a lunch where he’d sit and listen to the stories about those who passed.

As the years went by, he would bring his mother to cemeteries to visit and she would tell stories.

“That’s what I see when I see a tombstones, I hear the stories,” Erickson says.

He used to wander cemeteries looking at the architecture and wonder about the stories of those buried there. When cleaning off stones, Erickson will sometimes recognize the last names of possible parents of schoolmates.

 

Fulfilling a need

Erickson says he never knew he could clean off the stones — his parents are buried at Oak Hill and he would tidy theirs, but he was unaware he could do the work more broadly.

The core of the cleaning group is Flatley, Hoppenstedt and Erickson, with Ritter joining when he’s able.

So far, the group has cleaned between 120 and 150 stones, doing about 20 per visit.

Some stones have already needed touchup work.

“It’s amazing how quickly they get overgrown,” Flatley says, pointing out the work they’re doing is often forgotten by others.

Hoppenstedt says one of the stones he cleaned was of someone who died in 1969, meaning their children, if they had any, may be in their 80s.

“Can they even come out and see the stones anymore?’ Hoppenstedt wonders. 

Some ask about the cemetery groundskeeper, who Hoppenstedt says does a good job when it comes to the grounds — the keeper isn’t able to get down to actually clean gravestones.

 

The stories behind the names

After they’re done cleaning, Flatley posts photos of the work to Facebook.

She’s had people in Georgia, Kansas and Texas, who’ve lived in South St. Paul, connect with her because they’ve recognized names.

Beyond those connections, Flatley says, it’s been interesting on the Conversations of History in South St. Paul Facebook page to hear stories about the people whose graves the group has cleaned.

“Giving these veterans and their families kind of a voice again, it’s names that haven’t been spoken possibly for many years, and people are coming back and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I used to live across the street from so and so,’” she says.

One woman posted about how she remembered one man who had a trained pigeon that would land on a classroom at Lincoln Center. Flatley says some of the stories have been tragic, like one of a Vietnam veteran who was killed in a car accident with other family members.

Hoppenstedt says he looks forward to Flatley’s posts.

“It gives me a good feeling, but in some ways it’s not for me,” he says. “It’s for what we’re doing.”

Flatley says she doesn’t think the job will ever be done. Hoppenstedt says by next spring they will be back redoing the gravestones they’ve already done.

“We’re a rag-tag little group and we’re just getting started,” says Erickson, adding they hope to get more people involved.

The group meets at Oak Hill Cemetery, at the intersection of Third Street North and 17th Avenue North, on Thursdays at 7 p.m. The time may change as fall comes on, so Flatley says people should follow the Oak Hill Cemetery Facebook page for updates.

 

–Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or hburlingame@lillienews.com.

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