Recording posterity in perpetuity

Keeping records of the Minneopa Cemetery on computer is a grave concern to Ruth Otto

By Brian Ojampa, Free Press Staff Writer
Photos by Dean Otto

December 17, 1997, Mankato -- The covers on Ruth Otto’s aging cemetery ledgers are frayed and cracked.

On the pages within, certain surnames abound: Jones, Wigley, Hughes, Williams. And Roberts. That’s Otto’s maiden name.

As she walks past the family plot in Minneopa Cemetery, she points to a grave maker and doesn’t even break stride. “That one,” she says, “is mine.”

Her life and her life’s work are nothing if not orderly.  The 78-year-old Otto is the caretaker of the area’s oldest operating cemetery.

 

Ruth Otto at Minneopa Cemetery

Minneopa Cemetery caretaker Ruth Otto holds aged, tattered burial records that belie a quest to modernize them. She and her husband, Chuck, are computerizing the burial data of the area’s oldest operating cemetery.

She’s not in it for the money. The $2,400 a year she receives is more stipend than salary.

Rather, she does this work because her father did. And his father did. And his father before that.

Otto has been at this for 40 years.  She succeeded her father, who served the cemetery 64 years.

"I give my dad all the credit in the world,” she says. “He’s the one who made this cemetery.

And now Otto and her husband, Chuck are cataloging it for perpetuity.  A daunting task, considering the first person interred there was a 2-year-old girl in 1855, and burial records weren’t kept until 1892. The couple began computerizing the old records last year.

Monument for Prudence Ann, son of John Jones

The first burial at Minneopa Cemetery was for 2-year old Ann in 1855. She was the daughter of John A. Jones.

They’ve stored about 2,800 so far.  They’ll have 3,000 when they’re done.  That should happen sometime this spring, after they’ve finished manually recording data from every aged, lichen-encrusted gravestone.

“We have half the old cemetery to ‘walk’ yet,” Ruth Otto says. “To me, it looked like an impossible job at first. I never would have started it.”

But her husband’s logic prevailed: Whoever takes over for here won’t be able to summon information from memory, as she can.

I kind of inherited this job,” she says. “And the truth of the matter is, no one else knows anything about it.”

The original portion of the cemetery out grew itself in 1955, when new plots were started just across Blue Earth County Road 117, a couple of miles south of Mankato.

Aside from those who have kin buried there, Minneopa is a relatively unknown resting place, where gravesites before the turn of the century cost 50 cents, and where a 16 grave family plot sold for $3.

The nonprofit cemetery lies on state land.

Graves now cost $300 apiece, with half of that going into a perpetual care fund.

Otto says Minneopa has about 25 burials a year, most people whose forebears are buried there.

It isn’t our purpose to be the biggest.”

Otto resigned as caretaker five years ago, then unresigned when the cemetery board couldn’t find a successor.

That’s when she began receiving pay.  Before that she had served gratis.  The cemetery showed a $10,000 profit last year, but Otto says road improvements, tree removal and other impending expenses figure to cut deeply into that.

Not that she’s complaining. She says the reward of being a cemetery caretaker is helping people when they need it most.

“I meet a lot of people in the depths of grief, and I want the situation handled with dignity, respect and understanding.

“It’s a service. You’ve got to leave something in this world.”