Leaving Lakewood: Cemetery president retires after 50 years

Lakewood Cemetery President Ron Gjerde stands in an old section of the historic cemetery shortly before his retirement. Photo by Chris Juhn.

The mayor of Minnesota’s third largest city left office in December.

Ron Gjerde was never elected to head Lakewood Cemetery. It would, after all, be hard for the 180,000 or so residents to vote. But after 50 years spent working at the cemetery, including the past 29 as president, Gjerde retired on Dec. 31 with a seemingly high approval rating, leaving behind a legacy of new architectural marvels and customer service.

Gjerde’s career began in December 1969, when the 17-year-old responded to a classified ad in the Star Tribune seeking a “young, neat young man” to do clerical work at an “old established firm near Lake & Henn”.  It was the last job he’d take.

Lakewood paid for Gjerde to take classes at the University of Minnesota, and he began thinking it could be a place he spent his whole career.

“People left and went on to other things, but not me,” he said.

Working at a cemetery for so long gave Gjerde the opportunity to meet, and bury, generations of families.  Getting to know those families over the years has been a highlight, he said.

“All I could do with everyone at Lakewood was try to make their most difficult time a little bit easier,” Gjerde said.

Over the years, Gjerde helped plan some of the most high-profile burials in state history, including Sen. Paul Wellstone, his wife Shelia and daughter Marcia; former Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich; and the musician Tiny Tim. He was part of the group who planned the funeral of former Vice President and Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey and recalls switching the plans at the last minute from a service planned for thousands of attendees to one with a smaller crowd once President Richard Nixon decided to come and the Secret Service got involved.

Ron Gjerde reflects on his 50 years of service at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis. Photo by Chris Juhn.
Ron Gjerde reflects on his 50 years of service at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis. Photo by Chris Juhn.

Changing times

When he first started, Gjerde was quizzed on his knowledge of the cemetery. He would walk the grounds every day to memorize each section.

Now Lakewood has its own app, complete with GPS to direct visitors to any grave they want to visit. That’s just one of many technological changes Gjerde has been a part of in the funeral business in the past half century.

Part of his initial duties included diligently recording vital details on people interred at the cemetery on handwritten on typewriter-produced notecards; now Lakewood’s digital archives can tell visitors facts on every person buried there instantly.

The way people are buried has changed, too. When Gjerde started in 1969 only about 2 percent of people were cremated. Now, 62 percent opt for a cremation process. That change in practice has made it more likely that there will be space for Minnesotans to rest eternally at the cemetery for years to come. There are about 180,000 people buried in Lakewood across 250 acres, and Gjerde thinks there’s room for another 180,000 more; the cemetery owns an additional 30 acres of undeveloped land.

Leaving a legacy

Gjerde credited a highly engaged board for the development of Lakewood over the years. Sometimes that meant taking longer than he wanted on a project, like the Garden Mausoleum.

Plans for the structure began in 2007 and were tweaked by the board and cemetery staff for years before being completed in 2011. The structure, designed by Minneapolis firm HGA, has been widely heralded for its design.

“As a result, we ended up with a beautiful mausoleum,” he said.

That mausoleum has been key to one of Gjerde’s passions: bringing people into the cemetery for happy events. The rolling grounds are open to the public, and its “Music in the Chapel” concert series has brought new guests, too.

Gjerde was raised in Uptown and had his first memory of the cemetery when he was about 8 years old when he let his pet turtle free in Cemetery Lake. His parents and grandparents are buried there, in a section near Bde Maka Ska. One day he’ll join them there.

Although it is known as the final resting place for Minneapolis’ wealthiest and most famous families, Gjerde said one of his biggest priorities has been communicating that Lakewood is a public space and that most of its occupants are regular people.

“Lakewood is for all,” he said. “It’s for everyone.”