When I was doing some research for a project on urban wildlife, I found some interesting information about the role cemeteries play. They aren't exactly wildlife refuges, but they provide good habitat for birds and other wildlife.

Surrounded by concrete and other building blocks of urban centers, these green spaces provide an opportunity for wildlife to flourish in the city. Although not common, some are such islands of nature within the city that residents go to cemeteries to go birding or relax among the trees.

The purpose of cemeteries is still to bury the dead, but the aid to very much alive wildlife is an added, unintentional benefit.

Rural areas have plenty of green spaces, so the natural elements of cemeteries aren't such an attraction on their own. There are a few exceptions, though. For instance, nearly two dozen cemeteries in Illinois contain remnant plots of rare native prairie plants that date back to pre-European settlement of the region and are now protected as state reserves, according to the National Wildlife Foundation.

Construction of a cemetery just outside of Preston has the potential to showcase nature, not within its borders, but for its setting on a hillside overlooking the Root River. It has the potential to make quite an impact because it's no ordinary cemetery. It will be the newest state veterans cemetery, the only one of its kind in southern Minnesota.

Of course, the main purpose of the cemetery is to honor veterans, a monument to the sacrifices they have made for our country. It will increase pride among local residents in what veterans have done and their role in our history.

However, just like urban cemeteries unintentionally attract wildlife, there is an unintended benefit with this massive cemetery in that it will attract many human visitors who want to honor their loved ones. If they come some distance, they will be exposed to the beauty of Bluff Country, perhaps for the first time.

David Swanteck, Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs cemetery director, told a crowd at the Preston Area Community Foundation banquet last week that he feels this will be the most beautiful state veterans cemetery in the entire country.

His focus is on the presentation of the cemetery and honoring veterans, but he realizes the unintended benefit does include economic development and tourism, items that are also important to local residents.

In addition to using local contractors for construction, the cemetery will hire several full-time people to schedule ceremonies and maintain the cemetery buildings and grounds, something he takes very seriously. He joked at the foundation banquet that he wanted to issue a challenge to the local golf course about which landscape will be most immaculate.

It will also draw visitors from outside the area. He noted that Minnesota's other state veterans cemetery in Little Falls, now more than a decade old, has become a year-round tourist attraction with visitors using area restaurants and hotels. Ceremonies during Memorial Day bring in hundreds of people at one time.

While visitors will have a direct economic benefit to the businesses in the area, the benefit could also be in the form of a ripple effect as visitors tell their friends about their experience of the beauty of our area and the graciousness of our residents who understand the importance in honoring these veterans.

The new cemetery set to open within a year will enhance our heritage as it pays tribute to the role of veterans in our lives, but also has the potential to contribute to our culture, both monetarily and socially.

Cemeteries are about much more than death. If you put your preconceptions aside, you will see the continuity of life flow through them and into the rest of the world.