Highway 13 in Burnsville is in squarely suburban territory, with plenty of opportunities to pull off for Home Depot or Taco Bell. But it’s still far enough out of the core cities to retain vestiges of the rural landscape that dominated Dakota County less than 50 years ago. On my drive through Burnsville, it felt more rural than exurban; I stopped at a roadside stand to buy some fresh vegetables grown a few miles away, and ate lunch in a rustic wood-paneled family restaurant with framed pictures of deer on the walls. Dakota County is beautiful country, separated from suburban Hennepin County by the bluffs running along the Minnesota River valley.
It’s on one of these bluffs that the Garden of Eden Cemetery is located, off of Highway 13 and with a beautiful view of the valley below. One of two Islamic cemeteries in the Twin Cities, it is also the newest, having opened in 2005 and sharing the land with Pleasant View, a non-Muslim cemetery. Both are managed by the Minnesota Cemeteries Corporation, an organization formed to accommodate Muslim burials in the Twin Cities.
Some of the earliest Muslim burials in the Twin Cities were in a cemetery in Bloomington, explained Minnesota Cemeteries Corporation director Amir Kader on a recent afternoon in his office in Burnsville. Before the East African diaspora settled in Minnesota in the early 1990s, there were only about two or three Muslim deaths a year in the area. As more and more Muslims came to Minnesota, however, there was a need for a dedicated place for burials performed in accordance with Islamic tradition. Muslim burials don’t make use of coffins, putting the deceased, after being washed and shrouded in a Muslim funeral home, directly back into the earth within a few hours of death. As is recited during the burial: “from the (earth) did We create you / and into it shall We return you / and from it shall We bring you out once again.” Furthermore, the grave sites must be oriented with the deceased on his or her right side facing, in accordance with Islamic tradition, the Kaaba in Mecca. There was some difficulty fulfilling these requirements in the context of a Western cemetery.
In the early 1990s, the group purchased a Lutheran cemetery in Roseville with a vacant south parcel, also taking on the responsibility of maintaining the entire cemetery. However, even this extra space wasn’t enough to accommodate the growing Muslim population in the cities. Another cemetery was needed, and obtaining the land and permits to build a new cemetery in the cities from scratch proved nearly impossible. Cemeteries, as we’ve seen in past Strolls, tended to have cities grow around them. Earlier immigrant groups had the benefit of establishing them for their own communities in sparsely populated areas without needing to worry about sprawl or permits or land use issues, and then letting the city catch up. Late 20th-century Minneapolis-St. Paul, with most of the land inside of its borders already accounted for, couldn’t make those same accommodations.
At this time, though, a corporation in Texas was offering two cemeteries for sale – one in Burnsville, and another in Mahtomedi. The MCC obtained both, along with all the existing plots and the prepaid contracts. Geographically, this has served the Muslim population well, as Roseville, Matomedhi and Burnsville triangulate the metro area nicely. These cemeteries are expected to serve the Muslim population of the region for another century.
Garden of Eden is marked on Highway 13 by a sign announcing it and Pleasant View, the older cemetery the corporation purchased. Pleasant View is a traditional Christian cemetery, with mausoleums, statuary, and upright granite and marble headstones. Making one’s way to the northern parcel, one finds the scene changes somewhat. Viewing the plots in the Garden of Eden from the cemetery path gives the impression of looking out over a meadowland. There are no headstones or monuments jutting up past the horizon. Only when you walk toward them over the grass you see them resting in the ground, not in rows, but arranged radially, at a diagonal.
Explaining my interest in funereal architecture when we met, Kader grinned: “Well, you won’t find much architecture.” There are no mausoleums or structures on the site. There are only two other pieces of signage — one for the Garden of Eden itself, and another for the Burial Services Association. A granite sculpture, resting on a wedge-shaped based and with a window-like aperture, designates the direction toward Mecca. The rest of the land is a sea of grass, broken up only occasionally by dirt from fresh burials. In Islam, grave markers are traditionally no more than twelve inches off the ground. Most are embedded completely in the ground. They are very much a part of the landscape around them.
The several dozen markers at the Garden of Eden are flat and made of brass, and very simply designed. They bear the person’s name, their birth and death dates, and sometimes a brief biographical note or remembrance, or a star and crescent. The names, most in English but some in Arabic, you find give a sense of the diversity of the region’s Muslim population – East African, Indian, Balkan, and the occasional Scandinavian surname. A few of the markers bear silk flowers and trees planted in memoriam, but for the most part, leaving flowers on grave sites in Islam is discouraged. Survivors are instead encouraged to make charitable contributions. “A person’s deeds are more important than anything,” Kader tells me.
The radiant arrangement of the markers and the undisturbed greenness of the surroundings – especially with the dramatic view of the river valley, past a veil of old growth trees – creates a strikingly tranquil environment. There is a particularly non-hierarchical, egalitarian quality to the uniformly simple markers, where attention is not drawn to any one in particular, but to the arrangement of all of them, facing Mecca. It is a relatively new cemetery, with all of the burials having occurred in the past few years. There are now 80 to 90 burials a year. There is a sense of the history of a religious community in this state being written around you.
Eden is, in Islam, the highest level in paradise, described in the Qur’an as “gardens of perpetual bliss.”
“It is a prayer,” says Kader. “We hope.”