Five or six years ago, Sally and Scott Taylor of Richfield decided to mark Memorial Day with a stroll through Minneapolis' bucolic Lakewood Cemetery. Since neither had relatives buried in the area, Scott suggested they bring flowers to place on one of the graves, as a way of honoring the dead.
So the Taylors wandered through the cemetery's lush, 250-acre grounds, scanning dates on headstones: Perhaps they could select the grave of a soldier who had lost his life in war.
Near the pond, they noticed a flat marker with an emblem of two rifles crossed, which belonged to a young man named Floyd Barnhart, who died in 1918. Grass had overgrown the edges. The urn beside the family headstone was empty. Surmising that Barnhart's grave hadn't been visited in some time, the Taylors stuck their bouquet in the urn.
The next year, the Taylors decided to make visiting Barnhart's grave a Memorial Day weekend tradition. They had no idea that their spontaneous good deed would ever be noticed. Or what it might set in motion. Or what it might say about human connections, among the living and the departed.
On Memorial Day weekend of 2018, the Taylors had been trimming the grass around Barnhart's marker when they noticed a couple get out of their car and start to walk toward them.
Sally Taylor immediately felt the discomfort of being somehow caught in the act — even if it was a well-intentioned random act of kindness.
"I was like, 'These people are coming this way,' " she recalled. "And then you feel like you're in someone's house."
The woman beelining for the grave was Floyd Barnhart's great-niece, Laura Soderquist, of Cambridge, Minn. She'd been visiting the family plot in Lakewood every few years since the 1990s, when her grandparents had been interred.
An aunt of Soderquist's had long tended the family graves, but in recent years, health issues had prevented her from keeping up.
In 2017, when Soderquist had visited Lakewood, she was surprised to find that a wrapped bouquet had been placed in the urn, instead of the flowers her aunt typically planted. "I thought, 'Well, that's different,' " she recalled.
Soderquist decided it was her turn to take responsibility for the family graves. So she and her husband, Jeff, toted flowers to plant. But when they arrived at Lakewood, they found a bigger surprise: two strangers at the family plot.
"I was kind of taken aback because I figured me being as closely related to most of the people in that plot, I should at least know who's there," Soderquist said.
Perhaps they were relatives of her great-grandmother's second husband? Or descendants of her grandfather's brothers? As something of a novice genealogist, Soderquist was excited to find out. So she walked up to the couple and said, "Hi, who are you?"
The Taylors explained how they had picked Floyd Barnhart's grave, out of Lakewood's tens of thousands, to pay their respects.
"It was this awkward moment, because we had to say, 'No, we really don't even know this guy,' " Sally Taylor said.
Fortunately, the Soderquists interpreted the gesture as the Taylors had intended. "I didn't think anything weird was going on there, but I certainly wouldn't have called it usual," Laura Soderquist said.
The Taylors and the Soderquists spent about half an hour talking by the grave; the conversation flowed. The foursome could have just left it at that, chalked up their serendipitous meeting to a funny coincidence, said their "Take cares" and gone on with their lives.
But at some point, somebody said, "Maybe we'll see you here next year?" And somebody else said, "Or maybe we could make a plan to meet?" And they all agreed: Why not?
Continuing the connectionThe following spring, Laura Soderquist texted Sally Taylor to let her know when she and Jeff were planning to visit Lakewood.
"They were very warm and welcoming people and we felt like we just kind of made a little connection," Soderquist explained. "I find as you get older, it is harder to meet people. People tend to stay more to their own selves and their own lives, so whenever something presents itself, I'm always open to it."
The couples picnicked at the plot. Soderquist brought photos of her great-uncle Floyd and shared that her father had been named after him. She showed the Taylors a newspaper clipping announcing Barnhart's death and the pocket watch he'd had with him in France, when he died of pneumonia, right around his 22nd birthday. Soderquist's great-grandmother had purchased the six plots in Lakewood, presumably when she was able to bring her son's remains back home.
In 2020, the Taylors and the Soderquists decided not to meet because of COVID. But this year, they resumed their tradition and gathered graveside the weekend before Memorial Day, to honor Floyd Barnhart and cultivate their new friendship.
When the couples first met, Soderquist couldn't quite believe that the Taylors would have picked her great-uncle's grave randomly, and that perhaps they just didn't want to share their connection to the family.
"I think I asked them the second year, 'Are you sure you're not related?' " Soderquist said. "Because, God bless them, that is really a beautiful thing that they were doing, adopting someone who they thought was a forgotten vet."
She appreciated that the Taylors chose to recognize a young soldier who didn't have any direct descendants.
And she's glad she and Jeff have been able to get to know the sort of people who would go out of their way to attend to someone who seemed neglected.
"They stepped up and did something about it," Soderquist said. "And I think that really speaks to the kind of America we all hope we still live in. So we're happy to have some adopted family members."
Rachel Hutton • 612-673-4569