Cemetery world isn’t as peaceful these days

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Some of the sculpture pieces at the city-maintained cemeteries provide a fascinating glimpse into how much value previous generations placed on honoring their loved ones.

“How are things over at the city of the dead?” a reporter recently asked Will DeBoer, who manages Colorado Springs’ city cemetery enterprise.

“Quiet and peaceful,” replied DeBoer, giving a good-natured response to a quip that he’s heard hundreds of times.

In fact, things are not entirely peaceful at the cemeteries. Like any business, the city enterprise must compete in the marketplace, meet or beat its competitors’ prices, continually innovate, and defend market share.

The city owns two cemeteries. No city funds are appropriated for their maintenance, though the city is responsible for maintaining and caring for Fairview and Evergreen cemeteries in perpetuity.

In the 1997 city budget, the cemetery enterprise described its mission as service, not competition: “Provide effective management of city resources and services with perpetual care and ongoing maintenance that will ensure the public a place for interments.”

By 2013, the focus had sharpened with clear Enterprise Objectives:

Increase the Cemetery Enterprise’s market share in the community. Measurable outcome: percent of market share.

Provide the optimal number of burial services as possible within El Paso County. Measurable outcome: number of burial services.

Stabilize the maintenance cost per grave at the two cemeteries. Measurable outcome: maintenance cost per grave.

“We’re still a service organization,” said DeBoer, “but we’re not like a normal business. We sell a product that nobody wants.”

Hurdles and advantages

That basic marketing challenge has been magnified both by vigorous competitors and societal change. The city competes with private providers such as Costas Rombocos’ Shrine of Remembrance and also Memorial Gardens, a private cemetery owned by a national chain. With the easy availability of cremation, family members have many options. Niches and small burial sites are available at many churches and places of worship. Survivors can easily scatter ashes on Pikes Peak, put them in an urn on the mantelpiece, or just toss great-uncle Jimmy into the trash.

Yet Evergreen and Fairview have many competitive advantages. They’re the premium providers, especially for Colorado Springs natives and long-time residents. Century-old trees shade the uncomplaining denizens of the cemeteries, offering a tranquil and meditative environment to visitors. Should you choose Evergreen as your final resting place, your neighbors will include many of the region’s most distinguished citizens.

City founders William Palmer and Henry McAllister are buried at Evergreen, as are photographer Laura Gilpin, artist Charles Craig, philanthropist Winfield Scott Stratton, author Helen Hunt Jackson and former Broadmoor patriarch William Thayer Tutt. It’s a better neighborhood than you’ve ever lived in, a party to which you might never have been invited.

Moreover, the city guarantees perpetual maintenance of the grounds. And while the city may not last for all of eternity, as the contract seems to imply, it has performed on its promise for almost 138 years.

Approximately 93,000 people are buried in Fairview and Evergreen. Created in 1871, Evergreen has been owned by the city since 1875, while Fairview, established in 1895 off South 26th Street, was annexed by the city in 1917. Evergreen contains 220 acres while Fairview, at 45 acres, is much smaller.

Despite apparent overpopulation, the cemeteries are a long way from being full.

“How long will we be in business?” asks DeBoer. “Another 100 years, depending on demand.”

The influence of cremation

Cremation has sharply reduced the demand for casket burial, but the practice has brought about societal changes that may doom traditional cemeteries.

“Seventy percent of deaths in Colorado Springs result in cremation,” said DeBoer, “and only half of those remains are interred. Pikes Peak, Garden of the Gods — it can get mighty dusty in the garden on a windy day!”

Cemeteries, DeBoer continued, are meant to be places of meditation and memory. But as families fragment and dissolve, burial traditions change. Cemetery revenues suffer and grave markers deteriorate, absent family members to tend them.

“That’s a big problem for us,” DeBoer explained, “because we don’t have the resources to maintain them, so it’s like an abandoned house on the block — it drags down the entire neighborhood.”

The cemeteries are divided into blocks, and each gravesite is identified by block and number.

“It’s really a little city,” said DeBoer, who has presided over the enterprise for 21 years, “and I guess that makes me the mayor of the necropolis.”

Most cemetery blocks are endowed, meaning that the purchasers paid for perpetual care. According to the cemetery website,”…the perpetual care fund encompasses the mowing, watering, and fertilizing of grave sites. Monument maintenance is the responsibility of the purchasers and their heirs.”

With that responsibility come rights. Did great-great Grandpa erect an elaborate marble mausoleum, complete with Tiffany glass windows? As his heir, you can remove the glass and sell it — or even disassemble the entire mausoleum, move it to your property and convert it into a backyard rental cottage.

“It belongs to you,” said DeBoer.

Cemetery operations are partially supported by the endowment fund, expected to yield approximately $250,000 this year to help the enterprise fulfill the city’s perpetual care commitment.

The endowment amounts to slightly more than $10 million, currently invested in a conservative mix of bonds and equity. It grows modestly every year, as purchasers of grave sites are required to contribute to the fund. Endowment contributions range from $45 (infant grave space) to $360 (fifth row, Palmer Columbarium at Evergreen).

Fifteen years ago, the cemetery enterprise had 12 employees. Today there are five.

“All we really do is water and mow,” said DeBoer. “We’ve contracted out mowing, but water keeps going up. We use non-potable water, but I understand that even non-potable may be rationed this summer.”

Without supplemental water, DeBoer predicts the extraordinary urban forests that now shade Fairview and Evergreen will die in a few years.

An expensive neighborhood

Woody Allen once remarked, “The key I think is to not think of death as an end, but think of it more as a very effective way to cut down on your expenses.” Maybe so, but if you want a casket burial in a premier double-depth space at Evergreen, it’ll cost $2,750 — and that doesn’t include the casket, the gravestone, the undertaker, the funeral or the after-party.

Just as your homeowners association can enforce apparently unreasonable covenants (no windows in garage doors?), the Cemetery Enterprise enforces regulations having to do with gravestone decorations and adornments.

What’s permitted? Almost nothing. The list of prohibited objects includes “trellises, trees, bushes, roses, shrubs or spreading plants, baskets, boxes, shells, toys, crockery, glassware, potted plants, cans, figurines, wood crosses and anything else wood, rocks, borders made of brick, metal, cement or any other material that could get caught in the mowers.” Cemetery workers remove and discard such material, often to the dismay of family members.

“The interactions we incur are in many situations borderline abusive,” DeBoer noted.

It was not always thus. From the early to mid-1900s, according to Denise Oldach in “Here Lies Colorado Springs.” hundreds of local residents decorated their loved ones’ graves with rose-covered trellises.

“Earning the distinction by Ripley’s Believe it or Not! as the largest outdoor rose garden in the world,” Oldach wrote, “Evergreen was truly a delight for the senses … the fragrant flower garden could be smelled as far as a mile away from the cemetery.” Contemporary photographs show a sea of roses, obscuring headstones and blocking lanes between graves.

What happened to the roses?

“Society changed,” said DeBoer. “The people who grew and maintained the roses are now beneath the headstones — and their children didn’t want to continue the tradition.”

One Response to Cemetery world isn’t as peaceful these days

  1. I don’t know how you guys managed to corner the market on quality journalism in The Springs, but congratulations on your achievement.

    Tom Clark
    February 8, 2013 at 1:23 pm