Duluth Veterans Cemetery Holds First Burial on Veterans Day

November 11, 2018      


November 11, 2018

Media Contacts:
Anna Long
(651) 757-1536
(651) 263-2640

Photo by Derek Montgomery for MDVA

St. Paul, Minn. – Minnesota’s newest State Veterans Cemetery held its first interment this Veterans Day, honoring a Minnesota Veteran who dedicated his life to service. Surrounded by family and close friends, Durbin M. Keeney Jr. was laid to rest Sunday afternoon with full military honors at the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery - Duluth.

“This Cemetery will expand burial services to the more than 32,000 Veterans who live in Northern Minnesota and Northwest Wisconsin. Often, burial is the only benefit our Veterans claim,” said Larry Shellito, Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner. “Durbin Keeney was a remarkable Veteran who not only served this country through the U.S. Air Force, but continued to serve in so many ways. He was instrumental in the opening of this Cemetery, and we will never forget his contributions to the Minnesota Veterans community.”

Keeney enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1969. He met us his future wife, Diane, while stationed in Duluth, and left for Vietnam in May of 1970. He served in Bien Hoa with the 3rd Security Military Police Unit. Keeney and Diane were married when he returned home, in 1971. Although honorably discharged from military service in 1973, he continued serving. In addition to fundraising for the Union Gospel Mission, Keeney founded the northern Chapter of the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans (MACV) in 1998, to assist homeless Veterans and their families, and served as the regional director of development for MACV until retiring in 2011. He was involved in dozens of community and Veteran organizations.

Keeney passed away May 4, 2014. His wife, Diane, said she was honored to have her husband’s ashes be the first placed in the columbarium at the new Cemetery.

Durbin was a wonderful advocate for Veterans,” said Diane Keeney, wife of the late Durbin Keeney. “Everywhere we go, people tell me how much they miss him, and the work he did to support Veterans. When [the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs] asked to have his be the first interment, I was overcome. He worked for so many years in support of opening this State Veterans Cemetery, and he always said he hoped he could see the first person laid to rest. It is overwhelming to know that first person will be him. Words just can’t express what an honor this is for our family.”

The addition of the Duluth State Veterans Cemetery in Minnesota is part of a nationwide campaign by the National Cemetery Administration to provide burial within 75 miles of a Veteran’s home. The closest VA national cemetery to this site is the Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis, Minn., which is approximately 160 miles away. The closest state cemetery is 90 miles away in Spooner, Wisc.

The new Cemetery is approximately 14 miles northwest of Duluth on US Highway 53. The 104 acre parcel includes an administration building, maintenance facility, assembly area, committal shelter, preplaced crypts and a columbaria. Ultimately, the project will develop 19 acres and include 850 pre-placed crypts, 407 traditional casketed burial spaces, 1,078 cremains gravesites and 720 columbarium niches. A formal grand opening event will be held next summer, upon completion of final construction and landscaping.

Bougalis & Sons Construction, from Hibbing, led the $9.2 million project. Stantec, an engineering and design firm in St. Paul, completed the design work. A federal grant from the National Cemetery Administration funded $8.3 million of the $9.6 million project; the balance was funded through state appropriation.

Minnesota’s other State Veterans Cemeteries, located in Little Falls and Preston, continue to receive local and national accolades. Last year approval ratings exceeded 97 percent for the handling of burials, overall appearance of grounds and availability and courtesy of staff. Additionally, the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery in Little Falls was also selected as a winner of the prestigious federal Excellence of Appearance Award from the National Cemetery Administration.

Burial at a State Veterans Cemetery is open to all Veterans discharged from active military service under conditions other than dishonorable. Their spouses, minor children, and under certain conditions, unmarried adult children, are also eligible for burial. Eligible spouses may be buried, even if they predecease the Veteran. Also eligible for burial are members of the reserve components of the Armed Forces, the National Guard, and the Reserve Officer Training Corps who die while on active duty for training or performing service or who have 20 years of service in reserve components of the Armed Forces creditable for retired pay.  There is no residency requirement for burial, Veterans from any State who meet eligibility criteria can chose burial at a Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery.

To pre-register for burial, or learn more about burial at a State Veterans Cemetery, including the Duluth Cemetery, please visit www.MinnesotaVeteran.org/CEM or call 1-888-LinkVet.


This page last updated June 11, 2018

The Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery - Duluth is the third State Veterans Cemetery, following Preston and Little Falls, and is currently under construction and is expected to be completed by the end of 2018.

The State Veterans Cemetery north of Duluth seen from the air. The 104-acre site, located along U.S. Highway 53 in Grand Lake Township, includes an administrative building, maintenance shop, shelter for burial services, a columbarium for cremated remains and a flag plaza.


The gate to the State Veterans Cemetery north of Duluth.


A rendering of the administration building at the State Veterans Cemetery north of Duluth.


A rendering of the committal shelter at the State Veterans Cemetery north of Duluth.


A second summer of construction has begun on the state's newest veterans cemetery, set to open this fall.

The State Veterans Cemetery near Duluth doesn't have a finalized opening date yet, but construction is expected to wrap up later this year, said veteran cemeteries director David Swantek.

Swantek said they've "made a lot of progress," despite weather slowing the project down.

"But we're back, picking up where we left off in the fall when things froze up and we've got another full summer of construction to go out there," Swantek said.

Work on the 104-acre site, located along U.S. Highway 53 in Grand Lake Township, includes constructing an administrative building, maintenance shop, committal shelter for burial services, a columbarium for cremated remains and a flag plaza; installing the road infrastructure and storm sewer system; and completing the landscaping, Swantek said. The creation of the new cemetery is funded by a federal cemetery grant, along with some state funding. The state will be responsible for the operating expenses once it opens and a dedicated local administrator will oversee it, he said.


John Marshall, captain of the Duluth Honor Guard that provides military honors at funerals, pointed out that the cemetery will give veterans in northern Minnesota an opportunity to be laid to rest where their families can more easily visit. The only other state veterans cemeteries are located in Little Falls in central Minnesota and Preston in southern Minnesota, in addition to the national veterans cemetery at Fort Snelling in the Twin Cities.


"I've been doing military honors for about 20 years. It's sad for me to see families see their loved ones shipped off to a state or federal cemetery," Marshall said.

Once the cemetery opens, burials for veterans and their dependents can begin. However, veterans and eligible dependents can pre-register to establish their eligibility for future burial. Ninety-one people have pre-registered since administration began accepting the registrations several months ago, Swantek said. To pre-register, people can contact their county Veteran Service Office or the State Veterans Cemetery in Preston at (507) 765-7320.


"Our process is either a veteran or eligible dependent, for example a spouse of a veteran or dependent child, passes away. The burial is scheduled and we assign the gravesite at that time," Swantek said.

The cemetery's master plan calls for a total of 16,000 gravesites, but it will be developed in phases as the gravesites fill. Each phase is expected to take 10 years to fill. The first phase is 19 acres and will include 1,257 casket sites, 720 columbarium niches for urns and 1,078 in-ground cremation sites, according to Swantek.

Funds have been raised to install a monument at the new cemetery honoring Vietnam War veterans afflicted by Agent Orange. The monument, created by New York sculptor Wayne Williams, will feature a Vietnam-era soldier striding toward and disappearing into a wall. The wall has been installed and the statue of the soldier is ready to placed once the concrete for the monument's location has been poured, Marshall said.

The opening of the new veterans cemetery is personal for Marshall. In addition to now having the ability to be buried close to home, he wants to provide families with the best funeral service that he can and honor those who have served, he said.

"It's a nice thing, a nice token for our veterans community and our community as a whole," he said.

The completed monument is a replica of a monument currently on display in New York.  The ten-foot tall monument will depict a life-size soldier walking into the wall, with the inscription "Walking into the Unknown" written on the top. The $120,000 monument was funded almost exclusively by donors. 

John Marshall's time on the front lines ended years ago, but his fight is far from over.

"The majority of the funerals that we are doing, and we do about 200 a year, the majority of them are Vietnam or Vietnam Era," said Marshall.

Marshall is a captain in Duluth's honor guard. A retired military man himself, Marshall spends his time in the Northland ensuring veterans are given a hero's burial.

"Vietnam Veterans are very dear to me, and they've been some of my best friends," he said.

Come this fall, when the Pike Like Veteran's Cemetery is completed, a good portion of those 200 burials will take place there. The cemetery has been in the works for several years, but now it's nearing completion. The 100-acre cemetery in is estimated to have space for nearly 16,000 burial plots. Marshall says that's enough room for the next 40 to 80 years of Northland military funerals.  The cemetery will house in-ground, and above ground inurnment sites, and plots for casket burials. 

Marshall says the need for a veterans cemetery in the Northland is big. The closest veterans cemetery in Minnesota is in Little Falls, about 150 miles from Duluth.  Another state veterans cemetery is being developed near in southeastern Minnesota near Preston. The most notable veterans cemetery in Minnesota is Fort Snelling in the Twin Cities, but that is a National Cemetery. Marshall says this will allow the families of loved ones to be nearer to their fallen heroes.

"By having something more local and more central for Duluth and the Iron Range, it's a beautiful thing because it will allow family members to come and visit their loved ones, just sit and talk with them and just visit," he said.

Most of the work on the cemetery has been done by outside agencies and was funding by an $8-million grant. But Marshall has been the lead on a very special veterans memorial monument set in the heart of the cemetery.

Marshall said, "I think this monument will create a lot of healing for veterans in this community, especially Vietnam Veterans."

The completed monument is a replica of a monument currently on display in New York.  The ten-foot tall monument will depict a life-size soldier walking into the wall, with the inscription "Walking into the Unknown" written on the top. The $120,000 monument was funded almost exclusively by donors.

"Without them, this project would be another year out," said Marshall.

"It's important to us because we like to show the support and the respect for the veterans and those that have served," said Patrick Gallagher, with Kraus-Anderson, a major donor to the memorial.

Gallagher is a 33-year veteran himself, which is why he and his company have donated thousands of dollars to the effort.

"It's really important to me to support the veterans and remember those that are still alive that are dealing with past conflicts that we have had," said Gallagher.

They're one of the numerous local donors who ensured not only the memorial but the cemetery is able to move forward. Hibbing based Bougalis and Sons is also a major donor to the cemetery.

"It warms the heart. For me, it gives me a sense of real pride for the community in which we live," said Marshall.  

A Purple Heart memorial is also in the works at the cemetery. It would be connected to the veterans memorial monument by a short walking path. Marshall is currently working to secure donations for that memorial as well.

Construction on the cemetery has been delayed in prior months, as a wet summer in 2017 led to more than 30 working days being missed. As it sits now, they are expecting to be open in the fall of this year, but they are already taking burial  plot per-reservations. Click here to go to the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs -Memorials and Burials.