by ZACH KAYSER
The conflict over land rights to a 19th-century cemetery near Elba has gotten more … grave.
Late last month, the Office of the State Archeologist (OSA) sent the New Jersey-based would-be developer of the cemetery a letter threatening to refer him for potential criminal charges if he did not stop work on the Whitewater Falls Cemetery. The developer, authorities say, does not own the cemetery in the first place.
Ed Bixby of natural burial company Destination Destiny told Minnesota Public Radio news in May that he planned to sell burial plots at the site for $4,000 apiece. His business partner, Matt Connell, told the Rochester Post-Bulletin there was space for up to 300 burial plots.
However, the OSA letter dated June 30 said if Bixby or his agents did any work on the cemetery, the agency would refer the matter to Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman for criminal prosecution. The letter, signed by State Archeologist Amanda Gronhovd, said the Whitewater Cemetery falls under the OSA’s jurisdiction as it is unplatted.
“[I]f any work is done within the cemetery, including (but not limited to) moving or removing trees, shrubs, plants, monuments, fences, or other features, without the prior consent of the State Archaeologist, it is a gross misdemeanor (MS 307.08, Subd. 2b),” Gronhovd said.
Sonneman told the Post that as of Monday, she had not received any criminal referrals in the matter. She did not know whether Bixby intended to desist or persist, she said. Sonneman had sent Bixby a cease and desist letter in weeks prior.
Bixby told the Post on Tuesday that he did not plan on digging new graves unless there was more support from the community for the venture. The intention of the enterprise was to “honor the ancestors and honor the community, and teach the world and the nation a new way of how to care for these places.”
Bixby said he had not sold any plots at the cemetery. However, Bixby did maintain that he owned the cemetery as a member of the Whitewater Cemetery Association (WCA).
The WCA has been defunct for decades, but Bixby and Connell claimed to have reincarnated it as a means of gaining control over the cemetery, since the deed for the property is in the name of the WCA.
“We did it by resurrecting the [WCA] itself, which never ceased to exist,” Bixby said.
The deed, filed in 1882 for a transaction that occurred in 1867, indicates the land was sold for $10 from the Stoning family to the Whitewater Cemetery Association.
“It should go back to the Stoning family if the community doesn’t want the services we have to offer,” Bixby said.
Bixby said he would give the land for free to the Stonings if they were willing, by making them members of the WCA.
Bixby said he planned on having Connell re-erect a sign bearing the “rules and regulations” of the cemetery. He was undeterred by the OSA letter, he said. “Go ahead, try and arrest me,” Bixby said.
“Unless the judge is someone who somehow has been coerced — and I certainly can’t say that that would be the fact — we wouldn’t be in violation of anything,” he continued.