VA facility could lead to cemetery battle

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The city-run cemetery has ample areas for military veterans, but the planned cemetery for veterans east of the city will likely have an effect.

The city-run cemetery has ample areas for military veterans, but the planned cemetery for veterans east of the city will likely have an effect.

Woody Allen once remarked, “Death should not be seen as the end, but as a very effective way to cut down expenses.”

That may be true of individuals, but not of the Veterans Administration.

The VA operates 131 national cemeteries, at an annual cost of approximately $500 million. Operating, maintaining, upgrading and expanding the cemetery system is seen as a sacred trust.

“The 2015 [federal] budget supports a continued commitment to ensure that national cemeteries meet or exceed the highest standards of appearance required by their status as national shrines,” according to the National Cemetery Association’s website. “VA’s cemeteries transcend the provision of benefits to an individual, serving a purpose that continues long after burials have ceased and visits of families and loved ones have ended. With the resources in this budget, NCA will maintain occupied graves, developed acreage, historic structures, and cemetery infrastructure in a manner befitting national shrines.”

So what does that mean?

The NCA spells it out in exhaustive, even tiresome, detail. A 76-page design guide requires that “the size of the employee parking lot should accommodate all employees, plus one to three cemetery vehicles, one volunteer, one vendor, one visiting staff and seven honor guard vehicles.” The lot should also be “screened from public view.”

The main entrance should  “… create for each visitor a sense of arrival at a special place.  The Entrance Area to the national cemetery should be an architectural or landscape architectural feature that portrays the significance and dignity of a national cemetery without overpowering the visitor.  The design should incorporate landscaping, such as trees and low maintenance plantings.  The use of color in plantings should be considered in the design solution.”

In approximately 30 months, the VA will throw open the figurative gates to a new cemetery. The facility, to be located on a now-desolate stretch of prairie near the intersection of Marksheffel and Bradley roads east of Colorado Springs, will serve veterans in Southern Colorado and the Pikes Peak region.

Local elected officials lobbied the VA for years before the new cemetery was finally authorized. Then-Mayor Lionel Rivera wrote a begging letter to the VA in 2003, and U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn’s first official act when he assumed office in 2007 was to introduce HR 295 “…directing the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to establish a national veterans’ cemetery in Southern Colorado.” 

Unintended consequences

It took a while, but they succeeded — and that very success may come back to bite future city leaders. That’s because our two city-owned cemeteries. Evergreen and Fairview, come with a guarantee of “perpetual care.”

How long is “perpetual?” Unsnarled from complex legalese, the answer is simple: as long as the city of Colorado Springs exists. The city can’t get out of the deal by privatizing the cemeteries, by refusing to budget for them or just abandoning them.

And if the city tries any funny business, there are thousands of residents who have a dog in the fight — mess with me, but don’t mess with Grandpa’s grave!

The new cemetery will create stiff competition for an important market segment — veterans. VA burial benefits include “a gravesite in any of our 131 national cemeteries with available space, opening and closing of the grave, perpetual care, and a government headstone or marker at no cost to the family.” Benefits are also available for spouses and dependents, even if they predecease the veteran.

Of the approximately 655,000 residents of El Paso County, 80,000 are veterans. Eligible spouses and dependents may account for another 20,000 to 40,000 potential customers. Pueblo and other Southern Colorado markets will also be robust sources of cemetery-ready veterans.

For eligible veterans in Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak Region, interment in the VA cemetery could be a no-brainer. The VA is to the city’s cemetery enterprise as Craigslist was to newspaper classified ads — you can’t beat free.

Evergreen and Fairview are currently self-supporting city enterprises. Their revenues are derived principally from the sale of gravesites, which the VA will provide at no cost. Barring a major increase in our non-military, cemetery-ready population, future City Councils may have to take from the living and give to the dead.

And in an era when many people forgo traditional funerals, city cemeteries are already feeling the pinch. Revenues at Evergreen and Fairview have been flat for five years, despite gradual increases in deaths countywide.

“I can’t remember the last time that we actually buried anyone in my family,” mused prominent Springs attorney Stewart MacKinlay during a recent conversation. “We just cremate, scatter the ashes, and that’s that.”

Evergreen’s 220 acres contain approximately 80,000 graves and there’s plenty of room for more.

“We’re good for at least 100 years,” said Will DeBoer, the longtime director of the city’s cemetery enterprise, “and that’s with casket burials. With cremation becoming more and more popular, we could go much longer.”

Marketing in the future

But every additional grave increases the cost of cemetery maintenance.

DeBoer’s not worried about competition from the VA cemetery, at least in the short run.

“This isn’t the time to abandon ship,” he said, “but to reinvent our marketing. That place [the VA cemetery] is going to look like hell for the next 20-30 years — just nothing there. Do you want to be buried in the prairie, or our beautiful historic cemeteries?”

Evergreen, created in 1871 and deeded to the city by Gen. William Palmer in 1875, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. Palmer is buried there, as are many other once-prominent residents of the Pikes Peak region.

Imagine the commercials: “Do you want to join General Palmer, Bob Isaac and Jimmie Burns at Evergreen — or spend eternity in a goat pasture on the plains?”

Bring on the Cemetery Wars!