Back from the dead
Vail officials are looking to give new life to a cemetery proposal voters killed by a margin of 70 votes seven years ago.
Incorporated as a town in 1966, four years after it came into existence as a ski resort, Vail began its municipal development focused on the living, not the dying.
“Vail was a very typical example of a happy-go-lucky ski town,” says former Vail Lutheran Minister Don Simonton. “Most other ski towns already had a cemetery because these towns had had a previous life. Vail was the only one built in the middle of a pasture, and the absence of a cemetery did sort of make it unique. But I don’t think it bothered anyone, at least not in the beginning.”
But as Vail’s elders near retirement age, the absence of a quiet place of remembrance for the dead and dying is beginning to bother some.
“I just think some of the recent deaths and serious illnesses brings out the problem of Vail not having a cemetery,” says Merv Lapin, a Vail resident since 1966 and a former member of the Vail Town Council. “I think it is a shame that some of the people that have made Vail what it is do not have a place where friends and family can remember them.”
Charlie Gersbach, a Vail original known for his great story-telling abilities – as well a a knack for real-estate development – is a perfect example of someone who should have a lasting place in Vail’s communal memory.
When he died in February, his remains were cremated. But his memory has not found a permanent and public resting place in Vail.
“I think Charlie should be memorialized somewhere in Vail,” says Lapin.
“Me and Charlie never discussed that sort of thing, because we believed we were going to live forever,” adds Vail real-estate magnate, Town Councilman and former mayor Rod Slifer, who came to Vail in 1962, the same year Gersbach did. “Charlie definitely should be remembered somewhere here.”
At retirement age himself, Slifer isn’t so sure anymore about youthful invincibility, but he, too, is starting to think that Vail’s days of youthful innocence are numbered.
“I think we are way past the time and need to do something about dedicating a place for the dead,” Slifer says.
An uneasy relationship with death
Since 1990, Vail’s birthrate has more than doubled, says Deb Schalm, spokeswoman for the Vail Valley Medical Center.
In 2001, she says, approximately 600 babies were born in Vail.
While being born has become relatively easy since the days when a single doctor operated out of the Red Lion building, there has never been any room in Vail for the dead.
The options, in fact, are simple but unsettling for those who call Vail home. Those looking to be buried in the area must make a final move to Minturn, Red Cliff or Eagle – the Vail Valley communities that have active cemeteries.
Those who want to stay in Vail can do so – albeit illegally – by being cremated and having their ashes scattered in a favorite place. The U.S. Forest Service frowns on dispersal of human remains on public lands, but doesn’t prosecute offenders. Any plaques or headstones commemorating such an occasion, however, are removed upon discovery.
The religious community in Vail has been making due, too, without a proper burial ground. But demand for a cemetery or a memorial park is growing, as more and more people die after spending most of their adult life in Vail.
Father Frank Maroney of the St. Patrick’s Catholic Parish says most people for whom he conducts memorial services at the Vail Interfaith Chapel “seem to still have some ties to other places and family elsewhere.” But some families want something to memorialize a loved one in town, he says.
“We have families doing benches or trees on the church property,” he says, adding that a memorial park “would definitely fill a need.”
“Increasingly, people are calling and asking if there is either a place for ashes or at least a place for names to be remembered,” says Lutheran Minister Carl Walker for Vail and Beaver Creek, who also works out of the Interfaith Chapel in Vail. “We are actually looking at possibly doing something with ashes. I’m still researching the possibility of that or just a memorial wall.”
Even clergymen say they understand that Vail may never have an outright burial ground in the face of impending build-out and high property prices atop neighborhoods’ apprehensions at neighborly funerals.
“The cemetery didn’t work last time around. A memorial park is a good way to go,” Walker says.
To bury bodies or not
Indeed, in 1987 Vail voters sent a mixed message to the Eagle Gore Cemetery District, which includes Minturn and Vail. They agreed to fund operating expenses for a new cemetery in Vail, but said “no” to building a $660,000 cemetery on the highest bench of Donovan Park in West Vail. The proposal went away and the money for the operating expenses was never added to district residents’ tax bill.
Six years later, burial plots in Minturn had become scarce and plot prices went from $50 to $500. The cemetery has since been expanded, but at the time the foreseeable end of burial space, spirited Vail community leaders to take up the issue again.
Working with the community during the 1993 Vail Cemetery Masterplan process, a second proposal attempted to be tasteful, free of vertical headstones and centered on a memorial walk that would guide visitors to memorial boulders instead of headstones. Though it won awards for design, the proposal lost with voters in a non-binding referendum in 1995.
“Some people said it was a bad image for Vail to present to its visitors. We apparently didn’t want anybody to think that anyone died in Vail,” says Paul Johnston, who served on the council and was a cemetery proponent.
Current Town Councilwoman Diana Donovan, however, thinks voters’ apprehension simply came down to location and the presence of bodies.
“People had a problem with the bodies. They weren’t comfortable with that in their neighborhood,” she says of the rejected cemetery. “We have to find out what people are OK with.”
A New Lease on life
“All of the Vail founders and early residents are getting up there in age, where their immortality is becoming questionable,” adds Donovan, who along with a fellow-council member, Chuck Ogilby, has volunteered to study the question of a cemetery in Vail. “We are not 25 anymore; we are getting old.”
But there are other reasons that make a a cemetery proposal particularly pressing, she says.
“We are getting old, but it would also be a nice way to document Vail’s history,” Donovan says. “And we absolutely can’t wait any longer, otherwise we’ll have to place to put it.”
Location – aside from the small number of appropriate parcels – could potentially be a touchy subject again.
Donovan Park’s highest bench – the site of the 1995 cemetery proposal – has since been added to Vail’s open space inventory. A change in use would require a town-wide vote. Despite the open-space designation, parcel isn’t completely out of the question, Donovan says.
“We can always ask the voters if we feel we have the support from the community,” she says, adding that other parcels may considered.
An existing park is out of the question, however, Donovan says.
“It can’t have a negative impact on a neighborhood, it is not right for a neighborhood,” she says. “It should be a natural area or something that can be restored to be natural, and it has to be relatively flat.”
A few lessons have been learned since the last cemetery go-around.
“We know that we can’t put bodies in the ground; that wouldn’t fly politically and realistically,” Donovan says.
“The next best thing would be a place where we could have a memorial service, something with ground-type markers or even engraved rocks,” says Lapin.
But other questions remain, and they’ll have to be sorted out in a series of cemetery meetings, which Donovan and Ogilby says they plan to hold.
“There are more questions than answers and we need to address them all before we get going on this,” Donovan says. “I think we can get it done this year.”
Amidst the questions will be how to choose between who deserves to be memorialized in Vail and who doesn’t.
“We can’t just say, anyone who ever skied in Vail can get a rock,” Donovan says. “But what do we do with a third-generation family with a second home in Vail? Would it be fair to exclude them?”
No matter what the concerns, Donovan says residents should not to jump to conclusions.
“This is an important issue for Vail to address. We need to come to terms with it,” she says. “But people need to know that this isn’t a done deal. I want to hear from them before they say “over my dead body are you going to put it there.'”
Geraldine Haldner covers Vail, Minturn and Red Cliff. She can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 602 or at firstname.lastname@example.org