It has been a long journey, but Halcyon Cemetery, a nondenominational cemetery with facilities offering indoor space for funerals that can accommodate up to two hundred mourners, has finally opened on a 10-acre site on the northeast corner of 50th St. North and Lake Elmo Ave. in Lake Elmo.
The site was originally the home of Roy and Marge Rossow, who built a home there in 1985. The couple was already thinking about what would happen as they grew older, thinking they would both eventually die there, and so built a single-story home, with two wings, one where the Rossows would live, and one for caretakers. Though both of them did eventually pass away there, the second wing was never utilized. Roy died suddenly while mowing the lawn, and Marge, who died of cancer years later, did not need that kind of long-term care.
For Rochelle Rossow Jacobs, Roy and Marge’s granddaughter, who runs much of the day-to-day at Halcyon Cemetery, that story is central the idea of the place.
After her grandparents passed away, their three children “wanted to do something with the property to give back to the community,” Jacobs said. “At first, they wanted it to be a group home, but it wasn’t zoned for it. When they looked into what it was zoned for, it was residential, agricultural, and part of the agricultural zoning was cemetery. So the idea was born.”
Jacobs’s uncle, Lee Rossow, spearheaded much of the original push to build the cemetery, and still plays a role in running and helping to realize the vision of the place. As Jacobs tells it, Rossow wanted the whole family to be on board with the idea of turning the place into a cemetery, his two other siblings in particular. When he presented his idea to him, they were unanimous in thinking it was a good idea.
The city of Lake Elmo was another story.
In October of 2015, when Rossow went before the council with his idea, the council rejected the plan, citing objections from the community, and the size and scope of the project. Then Rossow challenged the decision in District Court, but the court sided with the city. Still not deterred, he took the case to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, who ordered the city to grant the plat. The city challenged, and the case went to the Minnesota Supreme Court, who refused to hear the case, meaning Rossow had won.
Finally, construction could go forward. It still wasn’t totally smooth sailing from there. COVID hit, and the resulting supply chain disruptions, but this past December Halcyon was granted their occupancy certificate, and they were able to open their doors in late spring.
Prior to that, though, in spring of 2021, Roy and Marge were brought from their former resting place and were interred in a twin mausoleum on the site, in front of the building, where they now greet visitors. Their return is, in many ways, a realization of the vision they had when they built the place—even if they didn’t envision a cemetery, it was where they believed they would spend the rest of their days. It also means that Halcyon Cemetery is now, and forever will be, a cemetery.
“Once there is someone actually interred in a cemetery it’s zoned that way forever,” Jacobs said. “And it was my grandparents. We brought them back and had a ceremony, and you could feel it in your heart that they were happy.”
When you hear that someone has turned a single-story home into a funeral space—it’s not a funeral home, embalming and other undertaking services do not happen there—you could be forgiven a little skepticism.
“It was a ranch,” Jacobs said of the original structure. “That’s what it was.” But the family has done a tremendous amount of work, including adding a basement, and raising the ceiling from 8 to 14 feet, and opening up the back for the event space. The result is an airy, light filled space with exposed rustic beam trusses that looks out through a wall of windows over the 10-acre cemetery.
As much as has been done to transform the space, the family made sure that elements of Marge and Roy’s home remained. In the lobby, for example, there is a seating area around their old fireplace, above which hangs a painting of the couple. In Jacobs’s office, she pointed to a section of the floor, where the original parquet wood can still be seen. “That’s where my grandfather had his desk. We kept that part of the floor because you can still see the marks from his chair,” she said.
Outside, there are no headstones yet, though several plots have been sold, and there are two granite structures that can be easily seen from the road. One is a Columbarium, a granite column where urns can be placed in niches with memorial wording etched on the outside. The other is the Aphrodite Mausoleum Crypt, a large stone memorial where coffins can be interred. It’s all black granite because black granite allows for etching, which is a service that, while not unique to Halcyon, is not offered in many other places on the scale that they do.
It’s something that Jacobs said sets them apart, and is part of a whole service package that they want to be able to offer, one that allows people to work out the details of burial and funeral together. “We want people to purchase ahead of time so that their family doesn’t have that burden. We’ve had a few people purchase already. I feel like they’re fairly young people, you know, in their sixties, and I’ve said to them, ‘Whatever you want, if you hear a song you like and you want that in the ceremony, if you decide you want champagne served at the ceremony, send me an email and I’ll put it in the file so when the day comes all of that is taken care of,” Jacobs said.
There aren’t a lot of new cemeteries being built. Jacobs said that Halcyon was one of only two in Minnesota that has been approved for development in decades. But starting new means you can think ahead, do things differently than other places which have been around for hundreds of years. While the land is being graded and drainage systems put in, Jacobs said, they decided to put the vaults in the ground as well. The vaults are the large concrete boxes into which the coffin is placed, which protect against things like embalming fluid from getting into the soil and water.
“When someone does pass on,” Jacobs said “It’s just a much easier process. We have a tool with a little hook, we can open it up, close it, put it back in the ground. A lot of cemeteries will charge you a lot of money for putting the vault in and for us it’s already in.”
Though there are no individual markers yet, on one corner of the site, over by a pond—or where there is typically a pond, when there isn’t a drought—there is what looks like a big headstone. That is where the ashes of 97 people, whose remains were unclaimed, now reside. As Jacobs explained it, “If you are someone who passes on, either you donate your body to science, or you have no family, the state has to take care of you, so they’ll cremate you, then they’re just there. Someone can pick up the cremains if there’s a next of kin, if there’s no one to pick them up then there’s nothing to be done with them.”
A lot of people don’t know about that, or don’t think about it, but it’s something you learn about when you get into the cemetery business. Again, Jacobs, “So when we found out about it through our cemetery convention last year, we met a man who was doing a tour of his facility. We said we’re a new cemetery, he said ‘Any chance you might—you can even charge—any chance you might want to take them?’ And Lee thought about it for about two seconds and went, ‘We’ll take them, for free, no charge.’”
Every year more unclaimed cremains are added, and plans are to have a new marker added each time another group is interred. The state only gives them numbers, so there’s no what to know who is there, but, Jacobs said, they are working with the non-profit group Find a Grave to try to make it easier for families to locate those interred at the site.
A lot of the concerns first raised all those years ago have quieted as the cemetery has transitioned from vision to reality. Many of the concerns voiced at council meetings had to do with the affect that the site would have on ground water, and the family has had to do a lot of work to address groundwater concerns.
“We’re not trying to disturb the groundwater,” Jacobs said. “We had to put in three drainage ponds, then we have drainage systems throughout the property. You can’t see it, but there’s ways that, for some reason, let’s say we get a ton of water, we are not going to affect anybody around here, it’s all going to be drained away.
“At the time I think there was a lot of concern,” she went on, “people not knowing what this was going to be. Since then, we’ve even had people who spoke up at city council, who opposed us then, who have come to us and said, I really like what you’re doing, I’m glad, it’s okay.”
“And what’s the worst-case scenario?” she said. “We’re quiet.”
Bayard Godsave is at email@example.com