ST PETER —
Nita Aasen figured she was about to undertake a formidable task when she entered Resurrection Cemetery — the final resting place of nearly 2,000 people — on that July day in 2009.
Then Aasen went through the first row, counted the graves and compared that to the number listed in the cemetery records.
“In the first row, there were 56 markers,” Aasen said, “and the cemetery records for 15.”
Recently retired after 23 years as the public health director for Nicollet County, Aasen had decided she needed a meaningful project to tackle with her new free time. She knew the records at Resurrection were far from complete. And she, from personal experience, understood that the bonds are never entirely broken between those who have died and those who loved them but live on.
“I wanted to do something with meaning and purpose after I retired,” Aasen said. “And I wanted it to have some connection to Erik and David.” More on that later.
After three years, nearly all of those buried at Resurrection Cemetery are recorded, their vital statistics verified, their tombstones photographed, their grave sites pinpointed — all of it on a searchable online database.
From Charles Abrahamson (born: Nov. 16, 1875 — died: Feb. 25, 1909) to Baby Girl Zins (born and died Sept. 25, 1968), they’re listed online, backed up with records at the Nicollet County Historical Society where Aasen is a volunteer.
“We’re completely thrilled with the work that Nita has done and the work Steve Carlton has done,” said Bob Sandeen, the research coordinator for the historical society.
Aasen did the bulk of the record-keeping and research, a high school student looking for a service project agreed to photograph hundreds of graves, and Carlton — a walk-in volunteer from the Twin Cities — scanned the records and entered them on the “Find A Grave” website.
“It was a tremendous amount of work, just a huge undertaking,” Sandeen said of Aasen’s three-year marathon.
And it absolutely was meaningful because the living are being reconnected to long-lost ancestors, Sandeen said. Typically, it’s amateur genealogists putting together their family histories.
“People often want to make a visit to the tombstone to say, ‘This is where my grandfather or great-grandfather is buried,’” he said.
With most Nicollet County cemeteries, the historical society has solid records up through the 1980s. Resurrection, located on Highway 99 just west of St. Peter, was the exception.
“We had no information,” Sandeen said. “That’s a big cemetery with a lot of significant people buried there.”
Aasen, who entered the final existing grave site records into the database two weeks ago, changed that.
“It just fills a big gap in our collection,” Sandeen said. “So it’s made a tremendous difference.”
Already, an Illinois man — Roger Hughes — found that his great-grandmother was buried in an unmarked grave at Resurrection, thanks to the website. On April 6 — 128 years after her death — Anna Gustafva Evans Melberg’s final resting place was marked. The Illinois descendent bought a tombstone for Melberg, who died in Oshawa at the age of 24.
Finding the place to put that headstone was one of the many puzzles Aasen and Sandeen solved during the three-year effort. Hughes said his research showed Anna’s husband left quickly after she died (apparently explaining the lack of a stone), abandoning the young boy who would become Hughes’ grandfather.
“Roger said she married a scamp,” Aasen said.
But Aasen’s search of records showed that Anna’s parents — Carl and Caroline Evans — inexplicably were buried with two unmarked grave sites between them. And she found that Anna had a sister who died at the age of 6.
The conclusion: Carl and Caroline Evans, preceded in death by their two daughters, decided to be buried with the girls’ grave sites between them.
“We now feel we know why Carl and Caroline were not buried together,” Aasen said.
Anna’s case was one of an endless run of mysteries that needed to be solved as she worked through the records.
“By sheer persistence, we were able to identify just about everybody,” Sandeen said. “Only a handful of burials have managed to elude us.”
One gravestone had, instead of a name, just three initials. Using a variety of census and death records, obituaries and courthouse documents, they connected the initials to a person buried adjacent to the grave.
“It was quite a job,” he said. “We had no end to puzzles.”
Glancing at a few of the names on Resurrection’s new page at “Find A Grave” quickly demonstrates the work involved. A stone marked simply “Minnie Freeman, 1859-1937” became a more complete record thanks to Aasen’s research. “Minnie” was Wilhelmina Freeman, her birthday was Nov. 10, the date of her death was Feb. 21.
The stone inscribed “Father, 1843-1925” marked the grave site of Charles August Heglund.
The cryptic stone engraved “Carlton-Edward Nattier, Apr. 1907 - Apr. 1916” wasn’t the grave of a 9-year-old boy. It was actually the stone for a pair of brothers, Aasen found. Carlton was born May 10, 1907, and died two days later. Edward was born April 5, 1917, and died the same day. One of the discrepancies, the stone-carver’s use of “1916,” was determined to be — based on family and cemetery records — simply a mistake.
Resurrection, which is affiliated with First Lutheran Church in St. Peter, was also the site of the original cemetery for patients who died at the St. Peter State Hospital. Many of those graves were marked only with a number for decades, and some are completely lost.
Aasen, though, provides what information she can. Anton Olson is an example. His birthday is unknown, only that he was born in 1875 and died at the hospital on Apr. 5, 1933. “Unlocated grave,” Olson’s “Find A Grave” entry explains. “Section A or B.”
Anton Olson may never have a distant descendant looking to find where their long-lost great-uncle or great-great-grandfather was laid to rest. But if anyone is searching, Aasen wants to help them get closer to the answer.
“Descendants want to reconnect with their history, and it becomes so important to them,” she said. “They’re just hungry to fit those puzzle pieces together.”
Aasen regularly receives contacts via “Find A Grave” from people looking for more information on ancestors, their gratitude unmistakable in their emails. So one of the criteria she set for her retirement project — that it be meaningful — clearly has been met, and she plans to continue to update the website as the cemetery’s population grows.
The other objective — that the endeavor is connected to David and Erik Aasen — is fulfilled with every visit to Resurrection. Aasen’s sons were killed in a car crash on Thanksgiving Day, 1994, at the ages of 26 and 25, and they’re buried side-by-side in the cemetery.
They’re also at the top of the alphabetical list for Resurrection Cemetery at “Find A Grave.” Thanks to the double-A start to their surname, David Aasen and Erik Aasen may always be first and second on the web page their mother brought into existence, no matter how many names are eventually added to the 1,938 already there.
And as she did for so many strangers, Aasen posted a photo of the stone at the grave of her two sons — the stone with the inscription “Walk in the World For Us. Make God’s World a Better Place.”