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Fort Logan National Cemetery workers Mark Garcia, 62, (backhoe) and Pete Garcia, 59, prepare a burial site on Wednesday. Photo by Robert Sanchez

Life, Death, and Dignity During COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic has temporarily halted funerals at Fort Logan National Cemetery. But for the crews that work there, interments must go on.

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The body of Kathie Atkinson was delivered to grave 56-1213 a little before 10 a.m. on Wednesday. Her husband watched as a crew from Fort Logan National Cemetery unloaded the gray casket and set it atop a metal stand before it was lowered into the ground.

“It’s a peaceful day,” Curtis Atkinson, 76, said.

A few members from the Fort Logan crew spent their morning at the site, working quietly atop the hill. They scraped off a layer of dirt with a backhoe, then removed the slab covering the concrete crypt. They set up the metal stand over the hole. This would be the cemetery’s second interment of the morning—one of five on this day. “It’s an honor to do this,” said one of the crew’s members, Mark Garcia.

The coronavirus pandemic has prevented funerals at the cemetery for the past two weeks. No one knows when the ban might be lifted. Interments—burials of caskets and urns—has dropped from about 20 per day before COVID-19 swept into Colorado to about a quarter of that number. Fort Logan’s 30-or-so-member crew has been split into two groups—Alpha and Bravo—and the men are assigned separate shifts to decrease chances for contamination. These groups are then divided even more, working in smaller units to prep sites throughout the morning.

Without funerals, only a few families have shown up during the week to watch burials.

Curtis met Kathie while he was on leave with the Navy, 50 years ago. Curtis’ sister-in-law introduced them. Both Curtis and Kathie were from small towns in Utah; both were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He liked her smile, the electricity he felt being around her. Curtis was on leave for 21 days, and he and Kathie went out on a date every one of those nights. When he went back to work in the Philippines, Curtis wrote a letter and proposed to Kathie. He eventually returned home to Utah, and Kathie had made all the wedding plans. They married in Salt Lake City, and in 1974, they moved to Colorado. They had six children and 12 grandchildren.

On March 18, Kathie tripped and fell down some stairs at the couple’s home in Lakewood. She fractured her sternum and broke several other bones. Curtis said Kathie was dealing with other health issues, as well. “She couldn’t make it,” he said. Kathie died on March 25. She was 73.

They had been married 48 years.

Curtis was looking at photo albums a lot lately. He’d taken friends’ calls and read emailed notes they sent. They mentioned Kathie’s uncommon dignity, how deeply she loved her family, how she would do anything for her children. “She was just really special,” Curtis said. With most everyone socially distanced, Kathie’s memorial was this past Monday, on Zoom. More than 100 people joined. Curtis emailed the video to friends who missed it.

Curtis’ birthday was on Monday, too. His kids and grandkids made him a cake.

Eleven of his family members stood near the asphalt road at the cemetery, a dozen yards from the burial site. His children and grandchildren had their phones out, and they took photos and video. Curtis stood next to Kevin Johnson, Fort Logan’s director.

“I’m just grateful I could be here,” Curtis told Kevin.

“I haven’t seen this place as peaceful as we’ve seen this week,” Kevin said.

Curtis moved toward the grave.

“I see you left room in there for me,” he said.

“Hopefully that’s a long way down the road,” Kevin said.

Four men from the Fort Logan crew stepped back from the site. A warm breeze blew across the cemetery. Clouds hung low in the sky. No one spoke.

Curtis took a few photos. He sniffled.

“She was an amazing woman,” he said.

With the casket in place, Curtis’ kids and grandkids walked toward their vehicles. Before he joined his family, Curtis stopped and turned toward the Fort Logan crew.

“It’s been a tender day for me,” he told the men. “You all have made it better.”

After Curtis and his family left, Mark Garcia got back into his backhoe. He scooped soft dirt for awhile. He took a lunch break.

He returned after 10 minutes. Another casket was arriving soon.

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