Ashes to ashes
It was a gray St. Patrick’s Day evening when Pete Seibert Jr. gathered with his family and friend Joe Macy near Strawberry Park in Beaver Creek. The darkening sky hinted at a spring storm on the verge of breaking, the very thing the family had been anticipating. A few feet away, eight cloud-seeding flares attached to bamboo poles were aimed heavenward.
But these flares were different; they contained ashes from the man who founded Vail – Pete Seibert himself.
“The flares kind of crackled and popped and all of this silver iodide and smoke would go up, then they’d crackle again,” Seibert Jr. remembered. “It was a bit like alchemy.”
The moment was not lost on Pete’s youngest daughter. As she stared in wonder at the scene before her she had only one question.
“Has anybody ever done this type of thing before?”
“Honey, your grandfather did a lot of things nobody ever did before,” Macy answered. “And this is the last one.”
A foot of fresh powder fell on the valley that night and the next day Pete’s grandchildren skipped school in order to ski their grandfather’s last storm.
Pete Seibert’s final wish had come true: he had blanketed his beloved valley with fresh powder.
It’s a good thing that Pete Seibert didn’t want to be buried at the base of the ski mountain he’d first envisioned over 40 years earlier – because it would have been impossible.
And it still is.
Now, however, those who lived in Vail are finally allowed a resting place, of sorts, at the Vail Memorial Park.
The first phase of the 11-acre Park (located southwest of the East Vail exit from I-70) was constructed last summer. In September, the Park was dedicated in a small, quiet ceremony befitting of the intimate surroundings: Christian, Jewish and Native American prayers were read by both pastors and priests; the ground was blessed with holy water; a single bag-pipe player played “Ode to Joy” and “Amazing Grace.”
The park is not a cemetery: no bodies are buried in the area south of Gore Creek. Instead cremated remains may be spread or interred in a biodegradable urn beneath a flagstone, boulder, rock bench or the rock wall.
East Vail is prime real estate, and the memorial park is no exception. But, like with many things in this valley, locals do get a discount. Pricing for the park is set at three levels – the lowest prices are for Vail residents (which is anyone who has lived in Vail for five consecutive years at any time in their life), next is for Eagle County residents and the highest rates are for out-of-county residents. Flagstones for Vail residents are $2,000, $3,000 for Eagle County residents and $5,000 for out-of-town residents.
As Pete’s health had begun to decline (along with other members of Vail’s original crew), it became obvious to his longtime friend, Merv Lapin, that the time had come to finally put Vail’s unfinished business to rest.
“It was obvious that we were all getting along in age,” Lapin said. “Most of us had made Vail our home for 30 years or more and we naturally wanted to leave something – have our ashes here, have a memorial here.”
The creation of a memorial park was something that remained unfinished when Lapin’s time on the Vail Town Council was done.
“There were always other things more important,” Lapin recalled. “But when I was out of office, it was a little easier to focus on. It was what I felt the community needed.”
A quiet place of remembrance for Vail’s dead has been a longtime in the making. Clearly, most who chose to live in Vail are keenly focused on living life. So it’s not surprising that Vail has managed to put off building a cemetery. Plans for a memorial park had been trapped in the planning/talking phase for nearly 20 years until Lapin brought it back to the forefront.
In 1987 Vail voters agreed to fund operating expenses for a new cemetery in Vail, but said “no” to building a cemetery on the highest bench of Donovan Park in West Vail (see “Things to do in Vail when you’re dead,” in The Vail Trail archives, July 20, 1999 edition). Six years later the issue was rekindled when burial plots in the Minturn cemetery, the closest cemetery to Vail, became scarce and plot prices rose from $50 to $500. Even though a second proposal won awards for design (a memorial walk would guide visitors to memorial boulders rather than vertical headstones), the proposal lost by a margin of 70 votes in 1995.
Town Councilwoman and longtime resident Diana Donovan said the rejection mainly had to do with people’s apprehension regarding bodies being buried near their homes. Lapin agreed, saying “the body part – that seemed to be the real political problem; the neighborhood wasn’t interested. Rather than focusing on (having full-body burials), we felt it was more important to get something done,” Lapin said.
In 2002 Lapin brought the issue before the Town Council and with the Council’s support, Donovan spearheaded the cause.
“I wanted to make sure it got done right,” Donovan said of her interest in the project. She also felt that a memorial park was the “responsible” way to proceed.
“With a cemetery you use up land forever,” Donovan said. “And with a memorial park, it’s permanent, but you don’t take up as much space.”
Lapin says that when all the phases are complete (only phase one of three has been completed) there will be room for around 4,000 memorials. As far as the location, the Katsos Ranch parcel, purchased as open space by Vail in 1977, seemed to make the most sense to the committee, as well as the council.
“It was bigger, and when we looked at this site, it just felt right,” Donovan said.
Lapin, whose lone name is etched on the “benefactor” boulder at the entrance of the park, has a simple answer when asked if his remains will someday find a final resting place in the memorial park.
“Yeah, why not?
“I’ve been in Vail since ’66, this is my home,” Lapin said. He gestured towards the memorial park, “Just think of it as permanent employee housing.”
Vail has long been chastised by inhabitants and other towns alike for its glaring lack of a cemetery. The absence was used as fodder by critics who claimed that Vail wasn’t a “real” town, but a place ski bums ventured to escape life, a place to enjoy on the weekends.
A May 2005 Rocky Mountain News editorial about Vail’s new Memorial Park began “If death happens in Vail, it can’t stay.” It went on to say that “Vail doesn’t want any cemeteries to remind you that death comes, as it must, to all … Vail has been able to get away with its reality-defying policy because it was built from the ground up starting in the early 1960s as an artificial town for tourists,” unlike “rival Aspen, which once was a real town where miners and other hardscrabble working folks could afford to live and, when their time came, afford to be buried.”
Chip Domke, director of the Vail Memorial Park, couldn’t help but take offense at the negativity of the story.
“To me, I take pride in the fact that the founders of Vail came in ’62 and said, ‘Hey, I have an optimistic view on life, let’s make something out of this.’ (The Memorial Park) really finishes the town. We’re artificial only in the minds of those who brave the traffic and come up from the Front Range Saturday and Sunday. Monday morning comes and we’re still here. To those who live here, Vail is very much a real place with very hardworking people.”
In fact, Domke pointed out, not only are the founders of Vail choosing to be memorialized in the park, but normal, everyday people who cherished Vail.
Graydon Silver, for example, has his name (and birth and death dates) inscribed on a rock on the west wall was just a “normal-joe type of guy” who stumbled upon Vail and loved the place, Domke said.
“Vail has plenty ‘hard-working folks’ who lived, worked and now can be memorialized here,” Domke said. “Graydon was a ski bum in the late ’90s, and from what I can collect, was a bartender and worked for the Ski Co. He was killed when he swerved off the Piney Lake Road to avoid a mountain biker. His parents were so grateful that they could put their son to rest where he would have wanted.”
Silver’s parents were particularly excited when they were told Packy Walker had purchased a stone in the wall as well, Domke said. “Their son, Graydon, thought Packy was a hoot and always told them about his antics.”
Packy decided to purchase a stone in a way only he could get away with, Domke said.
“He called me one day and said, ‘Chip I’m feeling ill, I need to meet you (at the Memorial Park) right now.'”
To date, Domke said 42 stones have been sold, though many have yet to be engraved. Well-known Vail names can be found – Fleischer, Castor, Slevin, Donovan, Lapin – along with others that may have had lesser ties to Vail, but still loved the town.
“The first engraved name was Selke,” Domke said. “He was one of the original $10,000 investors in Vail. He was part of the group that designed the space lab. They loved to come up to the mountains. His wife died a few years ago and he saved her ashes until the park got completed. They were the first people to have their stones engraved. She’s the first one, actually buried in a biodegradable urn at Vail Memorial.”
The Park may not accommodate those who wish to be buried, but it’s still winning the approval of many of Vail’s locals.
Vi Brown, who came to Vail with her husband Byron in the 1960s, has visited the park twice now and is very pleased with how things have come together.
“I think the park is in a beautiful spot, I like the rocks and the circle and how it all comes together.”
For Brown, the memorial park was an element that completed the circle of Vail.
“We were long overdue with taking care of that detail,” Vi said. “We kept putting it off way too long because we could never make up our minds of where to put it or if we wanted a cemetery or a memorial park.
“It’s been over 40 years and a lot of people came when they were past 40,” Vi said. “And since they lived their life here, I think it’s great they can be remembered here.”
And though Pete Seibert’s ashes won’t be resting in the new Memorial Park, Seibert Jr. is sure that his father would have been pleased with the addition to his adored town.
More than anything his father just wanted Vail to be a true community, Seibert Jr. said, and that includes having a place where those who loved Vail can be memorialized.
“Anything like this (Memorial Park), that brings the community together, I think he’d love to see,” Seibert Jr. said. “And it’s something that was needed. There’s a certain amount of Peter Pan living that goes on in Vail, but at some point you have to face the inevitable.”
And those facing the inevitable can now rest easy, knowing that a part of them can always remain in the place they lived to love: Vail. VT
” To reach Caramie Schnell (from this world or any other) email her at email@example.com.
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In Eagle County, the most commonly reported dead bird has been the Wilson’s warbler, which is yellow. Dead yellow-rumped warblers have also been a common sight.