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Northlandia: Duluth's cemetery labyrinth evokes questions

How did a 50-foot labyrinth come to sit next to the main office building of the Forest Hill Cemetery? Who put it there and why?

2015 visitors at Forest Hill labyrinth
Visitors walk along the Forest Hill Cemetery labyrinth in 2015 for a celebration of labyrinth walking.
Contributed / Jean Walters
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DULUTH — On an average spring, summer or fall day, someone driving to the main office building at Forest Hill Cemetery might find themselves passing a person walking back and forth in a somewhat circular pattern across the road.

The person might travel one direction for several paces before quickly turning and going back the direction they came before turning again. Eventually, they might stop for a break at the center of the winding, turning paths of the labyrinth.

Postcard aerial scene of Duluth
This is Northlandia: a place to bring your curiosity, because you will find curiosities. In this series, the News Tribune celebrates the region's distinctive people, places and history. Discover the extraordinary stories that you just might miss if you're not in the right place, at the right time, ready to step off the beaten path with no rush to return.
Adelie Bergstrom / Duluth News Tribune

Forest Hill Cemetery is home to a 50-foot-wide labyrinth. The brick-lined gravel path guides its walker in through a series of twists and turns into the very middle. It is not a maze, there are no dead ends or decisions to make about which way to turn. There's one path in and one path out — all a walker has to do is follow the path.

"It's like concentric circles, so it's kind of like the yellow brick road," said Mardi Bagley, a member of Pilgrim Congregational Church UCC, which maintains the labyrinth. "And some people pray when they do it. Some people just think. And when they come to the bench in the very center, you can just sit and contemplate and hopefully, after you've done that, you'll either have some answers, or, at least, much more peace than you had before you did it."

Forest Hill labyrinth old sign
A very faded wooden sign reads simply "LABYRINTH" next to a 50-foot circular labyrinth made from paving bricks and crushed stone in Forest Hill Cemetery in Duluth is seen in 2021.
Teri Cadeau / Duluth News Tribune

Built sometime in the 1990s, the labyrinth sat for years in the cemetery with no explanation. The only marker it had was a plain, fading sign that read simply "LABYRINTH," pointing in its direction.

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That changed this fall when a sign appeared next to the path finally explaining its purpose and creator:

"Labyrinth walking is an ancient practice, used by main faiths for spiritual centering, contemplation and prayer. Walk between the bricks and may you find consolation, comfort and peace." And then a mention of Pilgrim Congregational UCC and the creator, Charles K. Walters.

Labyrinth New Sign
A new sign at Forest Hill Cemetery explains that the labyrinth was designed and installed by Charles K. Walters and gives an explanation as to how to walk it. The new sign was installed in October.
Teri Cadeau / Duluth News Tribune

But who was Charles K. Walters?

Someone unavailable for interviews, unfortunately, as he died April 1, 2019. According to his obituary , "Chuck" worked at Forest Hill Cemetery from 1970-2007, serving as its superintendent until his retirement.

"He started cutting grass there while he was in college in the '70s," said Jean Walters, Charles' wife. "He was perfect for the job because he grew up on a farm so he could do all the jobs at the cemetery. He could cut down trees and dig holes, but also put on a suit and go to business meetings. And he was really good with people."

Charles K. Walters.jpg
Charles K. Walters.
Contributed / Jean Walters

Originally from McGrath in Aitkin County, Charles served in the U.S. Air Force for four years, then moved to Duluth to attend the University of Minnesota Duluth. He met and married Jean and raised one son. When he wasn't working at the cemetery, Charles was a very active member of Pilgrim Church, where he worked with Bagley in a semi-counseling program that matched volunteers with people in the church going through a difficult time.

"Basically, we listened to their troubles and helped them find the answers on their own," Bagley said. "We weren't there to solve the problem — just to listen and have them talk enough to come around to some sort of solution. Charles was good at it and we co-led the program for something like 20 years."

While working together in the 90s, Charles told Bagley about the labyrinth he was planning.

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"He was studying them and learning about what they were. He'd seen one somewhere and walked it," Bagley said. "He studied how big they should be and tried to find the flattest ground he could for it in the cemetery, which isn't easy."

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According to Jean, she'd also walked a labyrinth at the Benedictine Sisters of St. Scholastica Monastery's McCabe Retreat Center and told Charles about it.

Eventually, he just decided to build it himself. According to Jean, he found a pattern for the shape in a catalog. It's designed in the style of a well-known labyrinth in the limestone of the Notre-Dame de Chartres Cathedral in France.

"They had a labyrinth that could be traced with your finger in the New Age catalog," Jean said. "He took that and made the plan, laid it out and just did it."

Later, when asked to speak at a local event to celebrate labyrinths and labyrinth walking, Charles wrote out this "recipe" to make a labyrinth in his notes:

Charles Walters Note labyrinth
Charles Walter's handwritten notes explain the recipe for building your own labyrinth.
Contributed / Jean Walters

"If you want to make a labyrinth just follow this recipe: 2 pallets of bricks, 1 pallet of pavers, 2 truck loads of sand and 2 truck loads of crushed rocks."

After Charles died in 2019, he left a trustee fund to Pilgrim Church. Jean wasn't sure what to do with the money, but talked with Bagley and agreed that a good way to use it would be to make up a new sign to sit beside the labyrinth. It took almost three years from that conversation for the sign to be put up as they waited for permission from the cemetery board and went through the design process with the cemetery so it would match the other new signs and for the ground to be ready.

"I'd drive by every week and see if it was out there yet," Bagley said. "And then I'd check in with the superintendent to see when it might be going in and it kept getting delayed. But it's there now and I'm so glad to see it."

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"It's a good tribute to him," Jean said. "They did a really nice job without making it too long and wordy. I think he'd be pleased with how it worked out."

As of publication, the ground is covered with snow, making it inconvenient for outdoor labyrinth walking, but come spring, if you find yourself in need of peace or just feel like talking a quiet stroll, the Forest Hill Cemetery labyrinth awaits your visit.

Related Topics: DULUTHFAITHNORTHLANDIA
Teri Cadeau is a general assignment and neighborhood reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Originally from the Iron Range, Cadeau has worked for several community newspapers in the Duluth area for eight years including: The Duluth Budgeteer News, Western Weekly, Weekly Observer, Lake County News-Chronicle and occasionally, the Cloquet Pine Journal. When not working, she's an avid reader and crafter.
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