Rest in peace, Aspen
Ryan Summerlin November 3, 2013
Aspen and its environs are known for beautiful hikes and scenic trails. Some of the less known areas that offer the opportunity to enjoy a peaceful walk are the cemeteries of Aspen. It sometimes comes as a surprise to people that there are actually three cemeteries that exist within Aspen; there are also other burial sites in the area whose precise locations remain mysteries.
Ute Cemetery and Aspen Grove Cemetery are situated on the east end of town, and the Red Butte Cemetery is located in west Aspen. Not only do these tranquil oases offer resting places for the deceased, but they also provide serene settings for contemplation. Visitors also can leave with valuable lessons in Aspen’s rich history, if they take note of the names and dates found on gravestones, as they wander through the graceful statuary and sweet remembrances.
The Ute Cemetery, Aspen’s oldest, is a gently rolling parcel of land that lies on the southeast edge of town, across from the trailhead of the popular Ute Trail. It is the burial site of Aspen’s first recorded death, that of a mining prospector by the name of “Colonel” Kirby. He was laid to rest in June 1880 when he fell ill from “mountain fever” after an arduous journey from Texas. (Yes, Texans were headed this way early on!) Ute Cemetery is a small labyrinth of meandering footpaths and is home to an estimated 200 graves. It is well worth a visit and is a short walk from Aspen’s core.
Unfortunately, the Ute was a poorly organized site. It had problems from its inception, often livestock was found grazing there and hurried, and unofficial burials took place within its dilapidated fence lines without proper methods or records taken. In 1889, Aspen business leaders made a decision that a monitored site, farther away from the downtown district, would be preferable.
Nestled against the base of Smuggler Mountain and situated in one of the most splendid aspen groves one will ever see, Aspen Grove Cemetery has been in use for almost 125 years, and it holds the graves of hundreds of former Aspen resients. It also features a carriage circle for horse-drawn deliveries of the deceased; black horses were used for adults and white or gray for children.
As you meander down the narrow corridors, lined with aspen trees, many of the names read like the who’s who of Aspen: Cowenhoven, Paepcke, Benedict, Pfeifer and Bayer. The grounds are purposefully left in a natural forest state, and the unruly growth of native vegetation gives it a true mountain feel. With views of Independence Pass and Aspen Mountain through thousands of pale aspens, it is clear Aspen Grove Cemetery was a well-conceived plan.
On the opposite end of town, Red Butte Cemetery occupies flat terrain, and it contains a more orderly arrangement of plots. Its grand rows of giant cottonwoods give the entire cemetery shaded coverage, and on warm summer days it is a verdant grove of soft grass with a variety of birdsong lilting through the air. Deer frequent this lovely spot, and mother bears and their cubs can often be found napping against some of the monolithic granite gravestones on the north end of the cemetery.
A somber trend is seen throughout these historical burial sites, and that is the prevalence of infant and child graves. The loss of young children and babies reflects the hardships of the pioneer era, and these graves, identified by small lambs that sit atop their markers, are numerous. The painful grief of parents is sometimes noted with a poem or a few words etched into the white marble. Epidemics and the lack of medical attention would sometimes wipe out the majority of infants and vulnerable children in a short period of time. Many newborns were lost along with their mothers, because of the difficulties of childbirth in this rugged mountain environment. There is one marker in Aspen Grove Cemetery that has three lambs sitting atop the tombstone, denoting the loss of three children, from one family, who were buried there together.
Some fascinating features in all of these resting places are the architectural styles, materials used and trends in grave markers. From the intricate Victorian-style ironwork of ornate gates leading into designated areas to the shape, height and language chosen to grace headstones, there are true reflections of the specific styles of each era and the people who paved the way for Aspen’s amazing future.
Treat yourself to a special side of Aspen and take a walk among the handsome, lichen-covered pillars and finely carved flourishes that memorialize those from another time. Time spent in these fascinating burial grounds will leave you marveling at the life our brave predecessors lived, and it may just lend new meaning to your own presence in the world.
Margaret Reckling lives in Woody Creek and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.