Cemeteries face lengthy cleanup after severe storms

Ryan Zentgraf had a feeling the tree damage would be bad at Park Hill Cemetery when it took him nearly an hour to drive 2 miles from his home to his job there.

A clump of storm-downed trees lie amid gravestones at Calvary Cemetery in Rice Lake this week. The cemetery lost 120 trees in the July 21 storm. Steve Kuchera /

Ryan Zentgraf had a feeling the tree damage would be bad at Park Hill Cemetery when it took him nearly an hour to drive 2 miles from his home to his job there.

"On Thursday morning (July 21), it looked like a tornado had blasted through here. I've never seen nothing like that and I've lived here for 43 years," he said.

Zentgraf, who has worked as Park Hill's groundskeeper since 2009, arrived at the cemetery along Vermilion Road in Duluth on the morning of the storm to find nearly every entrance blocked by trees, but found a back entrance into the cemetery that he could traverse.

"It took me about a 10-hour day just to open the roads up here that morning. We have a heavy amount of trees in this cemetery and anything that was pine has damage to it. They were laying all over the roads and every section," he said.

With large properties dotted with trees, some local cemeteries such as Park Hill were hit hard by the severe storm and face a cleanup process that could take months.


"We've got a couple sections pretty much cleaned out of the trees, but we're probably sitting real close to when snow flies before we get everything out of here," Zentgraf said.

Park Hill lost nearly 100 trees - mostly spruce trees that uprooted out of the ground - and had numerous grave markers tipped over. Calvary Cemetery in Rice Lake is facing a similar challenge with about 120 damaged trees and several dozen grave markers tipped over. Officials from Forest Hill Cemetery, adjacent to Park Hill, did not return calls for comment.

"We had a couple of burials we couldn't perform Thursday, the day of the storm, but we started doing burials again on Tuesday, so we're up and running as far as that goes," Calvary Cemetery supervisor Tim Sailstad said.

People have been stopping by to check on the graves of their family members, and Sailstad said he hasn't been told of any major problems with individual graves at the cemetery.

"People have been very understanding and empathetic and amazed at the scene. We're just a bigger piece of property. Everybody around here is dealing with this in a smaller way," Sailstad said.

The fallen trees in Calvary Cemetery were all large trees and many of them were completely unrooted. And there are trees still standing that are damaged to the point that they'll need to be removed, Sailstad said. It's too early to know what the cemetery will do to replace the fallen trees, he said.

A week after the storm, Sailstad estimated that about 80 percent of the roads in the cemetery had been cleared of tree debris. They hadn't been able to get to clearing the smaller roads yet.

"There's a lot of repairs of the grounds. We can get rid of the trees fairly quickly, but there's a lot of cleanup," he said.


The water lines in Calvary Cemetery also were uprooted in a few places, but those lines have been restored, he said. Electricity to the cemetery building was restored on Wednesday.

Several dozen headstones were toppled and cemetery staff will be working to fix those, he said.

Any total cost estimate for the cleanup is hard to say at this point, he said.

"The majority of the cost is just going to be in the man-hours that it takes to put everything back to the way it was. Then tree restoration - that could be quite expensive and we'll have to do that as funds allow," he said.

At Park Hill Cemetery, the staff has been fitting the storm cleanup work in between the daily work of burials and cremations. Keeping the grounds clean is a normal part of the job, "but not at this level; I've never had it this bad before," Zentgraf said.

An additional person was hired to help, and Park Hill's staff has put in a lot of overtime, he said. They've had to purchase extra chainsaws, and the boom broke on the backhoe they were using to move the fallen trees.

They've gotten into a good rhythm for cleanup, Zentgraf said, where the work of removing branches, cutting up the trees and moving the debris is split up among the grounds staff. They also are resetting any headstones that toppled over in the storm.

"It's a pretty overwhelming job up here, looking at all the trees down," he said.


What To Read Next
Get Local