Memorial Day is a traditional time for cemetery cleaning and grave decorating. Usually the snow in Eagle County is gone by then and caretakers are resuming custodial care of grounds. Cemeteries share grief, respect and stories. The stories of those buried make up local history and cemeteries are open records, documenting the lives in a community. With westward expansion in the 19th century, cemeteries followed settlement. While still showing respect, early western cemeteries were much more practical than those in the eastern United States. Many were not watered gardens, water being scarce, and many were not associated with a church, those also being scarce at first.
Markers were wooden or a simple, unengraved local stone, sometimes enclosed by fencing. There were no death certificates prior to 1876, statehood, so many of these burials were unrecorded. Neighbors and family kept track of who was buried where. Mildred Toomer, Joe Albertson, Albert Skiles and Freda Lowe documented early burials in the Burns-Dotsero area which is a valuable resource for Eagle County. “Early Colorado statutes allowed any three individuals the right to create a cemetery.” [Wommack, Linda. From the Grave: a Roadside Guide to Colorado’s Pioneer Cemeteries, 1998. P.2 ] Without funeral homes and undertakers, these first cemeteries were family cemeteries on ranches. The Brett cemetery on Lake Creek (Edwards] is an example of a family cemetery.
As towns grew, cemeteries were located a little away from the main development, giving expansion room for town growth. They were frequently located on hills which, while picturesque, were often difficult to farm. What trees present were kept, if possible. Following Judeo-Christian tradition, cemeteries were laid out with the deceased facing east . The tradition of separating burials based on religion in larger cemeteries continued, with Potter’s Fields showing up for those who could not afford a burial plot.
Various organizations and fraternities worked as burial insurance companies for their members. The International Order of Woodmen of the World “…paid fifty to $100 toward the purchase of a tombstone for the policy-holder. Their monuments, in the form of whole or half trees, are common throughout Colorado cemeteries.” [Wommack p.4]
“The Grand Army of the Republic, organized in the nineteeth century to honor Union Civil War veterans, was responsible for the creation of Decoration Day, now celebrated as Memorial Day, an honor to all veterans of the armed services.” [Wommack p.4] As Civil War veteran burials are researched and discovered, the Grand Army continues to honor those veterans by conducting special ceremonies and adding markers to headstones. In Eagle County, Nicholas Buchholz, buried at Sunset View Cemetery in Eagle was so honored in 2007 with participants in period costumes.
In time for Memorial Day this year, the Sunset View Cemetery District in Eagle repaired and restored the entrance markers to the cemetery which were memorials to Jesse and Gertrude Sherman. Walking through Sunset View or any of the cemeteries in Eagle County is a history lesson and a celebration of those who came before.