The Ghosts of Colorado Past

November 2006

Beautiful and serene, cemeteries have lured curious visitors as long as they have mourners a strange attribute for places we strive to avoid all our lives. In the 19th century, cemeteries served as com- munity parks and picnic grounds; during Denver’s first few decades, they were among the few green spaces in town. Today, cemeteries invite us to imagine the stories of the people buried there—the Wild West dramas, the quotidian tragedies and triumphs.

Few of the graveyards in this arid state are groomed like Arlington National Cemetery. Most are half-wild spaces where unmowed grasses, aspen trees, and nodding flowers obscure leaning headstones. The memorials in these boneyards run the gamut from unmarked wooden crosses to private tombs where the excesses of the wealthy persist beyond mortal bounds. (Example: In 1923, the wife of newspaperman and investor Verner Z. Reed commissioned a turreted, wedding-cake mausoleum for her husband to be built from marble in Italy and shipped to Mt. Olivet cemetery in Wheat Ridge. Total cost: $250,000, or about $2.8 million in today’s dollars.) Modern memorials usually are much simpler and often more whimsical: a carved fishing scene or Broncos helmet (with season-ticket number), a cast-iron airplane spinning its propellers above a grave, a leather Harley vest or half-buried Stetson hat—poignant clues to the passions of people we have never met.

If trends continue, fewer and fewer such tributes will be put on display, because traditional burial is a dying phenomenon. Until the early 1970s, more than 95 percent of Americans were interred, but in recent years the percentage of cremations has leaped, and Colorado is a frontrunner in burial-avoidance. In 2003, 52 percent of deceased Coloradans were cremated, versus 29 percent of all Americans; by 2010, nearly two-thirds of Coloradans are expected to eschew the traditional trappings of death. Although some who choose cremation still order a memorial marker, many cemeteries may never fill.