October 29, 2009
Cemeteries teach history, induce humor and occasionally lead to histrionics.
I favored the Ute cemetery as a destination for my childhood wanderings. I explored every inch of it, wandering through the trees and wading through piles of leaves in the fall. Few Ute Cemetery plots sprouted grass or flashed with flowers. The burial sites fell into disrepair and disintegration; nevertheless, stone markers and wrought iron fences stood tall, defying neglect.
Often, cemetery tourists record their visits with chalk rubbings of interesting headstones or those of famous people. Such souvenirs could not record inhabitants of the Ute Cemetery who were memorialized by barely raised lettering on dried and cracked wood slabs that had been weathered to a golden brown. In the 1950s some of Aspen’s tourists replaced stealthy rubbings with outright robbings of headstones.
When I was a fourth-grade teacher at Aspen Country Day School in the 1970s, I discovered that my students were keen on writing Halloween ghost stories. Typical creative writing assignments yielded a few paragraphs; assigned ghost stories generated chapters. One year my students pleaded their case for a field trip to a cemetery to get in the mood for brilliant writing. Any excuse to visit Ute Cemetery was good enough for me. To more completely justify the class excursion I could throw in some history sleuthing.
We began our tour on the south side, observing rows of veterans’ headstones. Students, even high school juniors, typically concluded that there had to have been a war near Aspen for there to be so many soldier graves. Eventually, a student would point out that the dates of death on the many headstones spanned too many years to encompass a single, local war.
A discovery that touches students’ hearts is finding the many infant graves. Discussing the prevalence of childhood death during Victorian times set a somber tone as we worked our way to the top of the cemetery hill.
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Near the top, students noticed a cluster of deep, coffin-shaped depressions. Several of these graves were fenced with iron or partially fenced with rotting pickets to keep visitors from violating the deceased’s space.
“Why are there depressions in the ground where the bodies would be?” They asked. I tossed their question back. After a dead silence one student concluded, “The ghosts escaped, leaving holes underground and they caved in.”
A breeze rustled the leaves and tree limbs above our heads. One of the rusted iron gates moved, making a spooky sound.
A class choral scream ensued as everyone realized, simultaneously, that a ghost had just escaped.
I turned my head away from my students to see what the weather was doing, and by the time I looked back the class was frantically bounding down the hill to the van. I watched my most outspokenly brave boy, pumped by adrenaline, escape the cemetery by hurdling the log fence that separated him from the school van. I walked back slowly, inwardly in humor, to find my class silent in their seats and eager to return to school.
Edgar Allan Poe would have been proud of the stories that they wrote that year.