Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Exploring Minnesota cemeteries, including Valley Grove March 30, 2022

The cemetery at Valley Grove sidles near the two historic Norwegian churches. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

A TIME EXISTED when I avoided cemeteries. I didn’t like the thought of being among the dead. It creeped me out. The thought of bodies beneath the ground. Bones. Nightmarish thoughts fueled by imagination. Long ago I left those dark fears behind, accepting the reality of death. That came with maturity, a deepening of my faith and the deaths of many loved ones.

Art and heritage and faith and lives remembered. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Today I am drawn to cemeteries, especially rural cemeteries. That includes the hilltop Valley Grove Cemetery in rural Nerstrand.

Oaks edge the cemetery and a road along it. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Graveyards are more than a final resting place, as we so nicely phrase it, for loved ones. Graveyards are also places to grieve and remember. They are also places of history, heritage and art, often sited in the most peaceful of settings. Valley Grove checks off all those items on that place list.

The cemetery surrounds three sides of the 1862 stone church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

I’ve explored many other country cemeteries, wandering among the tombstones, wondering about the people buried there. Why did they die so young? What were they like? What were their occupations? What made them happy? Who misses them?

Erik Floren’s tombstone. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
The in-ground marker of Ole Hemvig. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
Honoring Thomas and Einar Halvorsen. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo March 2022)

Tombstone engravings reveal bits and pieces of life stories. Sometimes of heritage. At Valley Grove, many names reference a Norwegian heritage. Ole. Erik. Einar. Inger. Junius. I doubt I’ve ever found so many “Oles” buried in a Minnesota cemetery. That’s not unexpected given the Norwegian immigrants who settled here and built the two churches which still stand. Older stone inscriptions are sometimes written in the Mother Tongue. German I can occasionally decipher. Norwegian, not.

On Clyde Heggedahl’s tombstone. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Through the years, the art of grave markers has evolved to more elaborate artwork that tells a story. For example, at Valley Grove an image of Nerstrand Meats & Catering decorates the stone of Clyde Heggedahl of that long-standing business co-owned with his wife, Mary. He died in 2016. At the meat market.

A faith and love-filled message. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Bible verses and inspirational messages grace gravestones, too, offering insights and comfort. Sharing hope and faith. Love.

A special marker for a veteran’s grave. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

I often pause at burial spots marked by military markers. As the daughter of a Korean War veteran, I hold honor in my heart for those who have served. I recognize the sacrifices, whether given through death on the battlefield or the life-long challenges faced by too many of our veterans. That included my father, who died in 2003. Dad received his purple heart 47 years after he was wounded in Korea. War forever wounded his spirit; he battled Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I am thankful veterans’ graves are flagged with honor.

The old stone church and cemetery at Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

There’s simply lots to observe and contemplate while meandering among tombstones. I always do so with respect, for these grounds feel almost sacred. At Valley Grove, a certain serenity envelopes me in this peaceful hilltop setting among oaks and prairie.

What’s the story behind the “Snuffy” nickname? (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Although those buried here were unknown to me in life, I’ve come to know them a bit in death. The countless “Oles.” The young and the old. They were all cherished. Loved. Part of the family of humanity. They mattered. And their stories matter.

Posted on the gated entry to Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

TELL ME: Do you explore cemeteries and, if you do, why?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


14 Responses to “Exploring Minnesota cemeteries, including Valley Grove”

  1. I have explored many cemeteries in Minnesota where my ancestors are buried. One in Mora is of my granddad 5 times back who was one of the first settlers in Kanabec county. He also fought in the Civil War so there is also a veteran grave marker.

  2. Lovely post, Audrey. I find cemeteries to be quite peaceful. Many are filled with rich history, which I’ve always found interesting.

  3. beth Says:

    I have a beautiful and very old one not far from my house that I can walk to, and I’ve enjoyed walking through, reading peoples’ ‘stories’ on the stones, and seeing a bit of history

  4. Jenny Woldum Says:

    Hi Audrey…I love walking through old cemeteries, especially the ones where I grew up, as I remember the names and stories of those who are buried there.
    When I was a kid and we’d go on Sunday drives, my dad would stop for cemeteries and we thought it was so boring. Now it is something my siblings and I talk about and I have done more than once w my brother Dean. I also enjoy visiting them on vacations, as each area of the US, and different areas of the world, honor their dead so differently! Such beauty and history! And right in our neighborhoods!

    • You make some good points, Jenny, about the different ways in which different areas of the world honor their dead. And I like also that you emphasize these places of history and beauty are right here in our backyards. I tell people that often. There’s so much to see right here in our backyards.

  5. I have explored cemeteries myself. I live across the street from one of the oldest in NYC. I documented the oldest Jewish cemetery on Manhattan island. They hold a fascination and a historical curiosity. The cemetery across the street has remnants of Santeria strewn about. While the cemetery discourages it, people still break in and perform their ceremonies.

    • This Midwestern girl had to google “Santeria.” Thank you for sharing about your neighborhood cemetery, Keith, and for teaching me something in the process. It’s good to hear from you.

      • The neighborhood I live in is a very different culture to the one I grew up, standard Judeo-Christian community. I knew no Muslims, Buddhists, etc., except for one schoolmate who was a Bahai. Living in NYC these past 45 years opened my eyes to the vast diversity of faith and people of the world. Something that I am very thankful for.

      • It’s so important to experience different peoples and cultures. I grew up even more “sheltered” than you in rural Minnesota. But now I love in a diverse community, for which I do am grateful. My grandchildren are also growing up in a much wider world, for which I also feel gratitude.

  6. Jackie Hemmer Says:

    I, like you, love to explore old Cemeteries! I often wander and wonder the same things you mentioned in your post. Rick is really into genealogy and I love cemeteries so we have a good time together, ha.

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