Casket Moves to Another Plot
Owatonna People's Press
By Molly Beck
May 3, 2008

It is difficult for a parent to bury a child. It's even more difficult for a parent to bury that same child a second time.

For Erica Cowell, that day came Saturday when she watched the pink casket she picked out for her daughter months ago be readied for burial - once more.

Ava Cowell, Erica's 18-month-old proclaimed princess, died in January after struggling to survive a condition she was born with that would eventually cause her death.

Soon after, Ava was buried in Sacred Heart Cemetery but not in the grave her family expected to find her.


Eight balloons - colored pink, purple and yellow - were released into the bright sunshine late Saturday morning.
Sailing over the pine trees of Sacred Heart Cemetery in Owatonna, the balloons signified a release of another kind - a mother finally laying her child to rest.

Ava Cowell, Erica Cowell's 18-month-old daughter, died in January after a long, highly-publicized, struggle with health problems related to being born with twisted intestines, a condition known as volvulus. Because of her treatment, Ava's liver began to fail spurring a liver transplant in January which proved to be successful. But because of complications with her treatment, Ava suffered a stroke and soon died.

"Unto each life the rain must fall, but Ava got poured upon," Lauri Cowell, of Owatonna, said about her granddaughter. "She fought so hard to stay alive and now in death, she can't rest."

On Jan. 24, a funeral was held for Ava and a burial soon after. But because of what may be a mistake - or just miscommunication - Ava was buried in what her family says was the wrong plot. Her body was moved Saturday from a plot in the north side of the cemetery to a spot to the south, just under two trees.

In February, when Lauri Cowell decided to visit her granddaughter's grave for the first time since her burial, she found a grave marker for a 53-year-old man instead.
"I saw some copper showing where her grave should be." Lauri Cowell said. "I thought part of her vault was coming up." What Lauri Cowell found when she visited Ava's grave was a foot stone for Michael Granowski, who has a plot directly west of Ava's grave. Because Granowski was a Vietnam war veteran, a foot stone was placed at the end of his grave - and nearly on top of Ava's. Because of the foot stone and because of where Ava was buried, the headstone the Cowell's picked out for her could not be placed.

"I immediately called Glen Meger and he said he callled the caretaker," Lauri Cowell said.

Meger, of Brick-Meger Funeral Home, volunteered his services for Ava's funeral arrangements in January and was the Cowells' liaison for burial arrangements with Sacred Heart Cemetery. After making some calls to Jim Hartle, the caretaker of the cemetery at the time, Meger reported to the Cowells that he was told by Hartle that the situation was "taken care of," Lauri Cowell said.

"But two weeks ago, the snow had thawed and we went to the spot, and I noticed a brass footplate at her head," Erica said in April. "She kept screaming, 'Where's my baby? Where's my baby?" Lauri Cowell said.

Ava Cowell was originally buried in an area of the cemetery for babies but in a 3-foot-by-3-foot cremation plot. "Ava's casket was exactly three feet. They would have had to grease (the casket) to get it to fit," Lauri Cowell said.

Hartle, who had been overseeing the cemetery for a decade, resigned as caretaker of the cemetery on April 1. He said the Cowells bought a cremation plot in the area of the cemetery that is designated specifically for children, but an area that does not allow headstones.

"We didn't pick that out," Erica Cowell said. "Somebody put her in the cremation section. You don't put a casket in the cremation section where we can't have a headstone and no one told us until we saw the guy's foot plate right by her head."

The Rev. Edward McGrath, member of the Sacred Heart Cemetery board and pastor at St. Joseph's Catholic Church, said the board had not formally reviewed Ava's burial but expected the issue to be discussed at the board's next meeting this summer.

Leon Bohlman, an independent contractor who took over as caretaker of Sacred Heart Cemetery with his wife, Lori, after Hartle resigned, said he was not sure why Ava was buried in the original plot but indicated burying in winter proves to be the most difficult in terms of accuracy.

"Winter times are always the toughest," Bohlman said. "You do the best you can with inclement weather and 99.9 percent of the time you get it right."

If a cemetery does not get it right, the caretaker answers only to the cemetery board. The county in which a cemetery sits does not have rights to regulate unless the cemetery is abandoned, according to Steele County Coordinator Dave Severson. Because Sacred Heart Catholic Church owns the land, the Diocese of Winona, in conjunction with the cemetery board, regulates Sacred Heart Cemetery. In cases of reburials, the cemetery must act in accordance to state statute and obtain a permit according to the cemetery regulations of the Diocesed of Winona. "I've been a director of cemeteries for six years, and every year there are some reburials based on mistakes," McGrath said. "The ones that stick out are children. Those things happen. They are just mistakes."

Though no formal action will be taken against the church of its former caretake by the Cowells, Erica Cowell said she wants an apology from Hartle.

"I never told anyone where anyone should be buried," Hartle said. "I shwoed them what was available and they made up their own minds. Nobody pressured them."

Today, Ava is buried on a hill overlooking Sacred Heart Cemetery where her family can buy plots next to her. Bohlman said another baby about the same age was buried the same morning of Ava's reburial and only about 10 feet away.

"She'll have a friend." he said.