In the years before the 1853 founding of Oakland Cemetery, it wasn't unusual for St. Paul's citizens to be buried in churchyards and even on their own property. Oakland was its first public, non-denominational site to inter the dead.
For years, Bob Schoenrock served as Oakland's grounds superintendent. Now the job of caring for Oakland's 100 acres and 57,000 graves at Jackson and Sycamore streets has fallen to his son — Bobby Schoenrock. Bob Schoenrock remains general manager.
Eye On St. Paul recently stopped by Oakland's tree-covered hills to talk with Schoenrock about the responsibility of caring for so much St. Paul history, including the graves of several Minnesota pioneers.
This interview was edited for length.
Q: What do you do as grounds superintendent?
A: It's a little bit of everything: weed whipping, grass cutting.
Q: How did you become superintendent?
A: My dad, Bob, did it for years. He started working here in high school. Our family has the monument company across the street and he just started helping out around here. He kind of fell into it and never left. He turns 70 this year. I kind of started the same way.
Q: It seems cremation is making cemeteries not as busy. Is that true?
A: As a whole, yes. For us? No. Because we do a lot of the Hmong community [burials] and they still do traditional burial. We're at probably 80 [% traditional burial], 20 [% cremation]. I belong to the Twin Cities Cemetery Association and the [Minnesota Association of Cemeteries] and everybody's about 50/50 or even more [cremation].
Q: People do bury cremated remains, correct?
A: Yes. We have niches. And what we get a lot of is what we call second right of interment, which is someone gets cremated and goes in [a grave] with Mom or Dad or Grandma and Grandpa. But you need to have very clear permission.
Q: With names like Alexander Ramsey and Amherst H. Wilder, you've got a lot of Minnesota history buried here. What responsibility do you feel in supervising such a historic cemetery?
A: We have the founding people of Minnesota, and St. Paul, true. But today we kind of have the new St. Paul, with who's coming in now — with the Hmong community. We really value the history, because Ramsey and [Henry] Sibley played big parts in getting the cemetery going. But now we've got [new] people who are maintaining the City of St. Paul. That's something we really take a lot of pride in.
If you kind of look through this cemetery through the years, it started out with these heavy hitters. Then you come through and we have Russian immigrants, Chinese immigrants — just a little bit of everything that has come through St. Paul.
Q: When Oakland was founded, where was it in relation to St. Paul?
A: About a mile out of town. They built Rice Street to come to the cemetery because the roads were so bad and the caskets were falling out of the wagons when they were trying to get here. And when you build a road, things start popping up — grocery stores, the blacksmith, the liquor store.
Q: From 1853 to now, how have burials changed?
A: When this cemetery was first laid out, they had grass ways between the plots so you never had to drive on the plots. And in wintertime, they wouldn't do any burials at all. [Bodies] would be stored at the chapel or wherever they could have cold storage until springtime, when they'd have a bunch of Spring burials. It's a lot easier now.
Q: Are graves a specific size?
A: Yep. Usually it's a 3-by-8 hole.
Q: How far down?
A: Anywhere from about 5 1⁄2 to 6 feet.
Q: Are they lined?
A: We require vaults. The funeral homes, that's kind of their deal. They supply the casket and the concrete container it goes in. We've required vaults here since the late '40s or early '50s. If you go to some of the old sections, you'll see why. There are dips and we fill them and fill them.
Q: You have 57,000 graves. How long before the cemetery is full?
A: We still have a lot of room. I think we could get to 100,000, maybe more, with cremation now. We have whole areas that have never been touched.
Q: Do you ever get visitors curious about the history?
A: Oh yeah, constantly. People are always intrigued.
We actually had a gentleman here from Liverpool yesterday and he's writing a book on some Dillinger stuff. He's traveling all over to where these families were. Then he was meeting up with someone from the Dillinger family in Wisconsin, then he was going to Chicago.
Q: Where do you see this cemetery in another 50 years?
A: Some people come by and look at all the big monuments and say, 'Oh, that cemetery has been there so long, they're full.' But with the Hmong community, they have really kind of regenerated the cemetery.