The business of dying: Burial trends, then and now, in Mesa County |

The business of dying: Burial trends, then and now, in Mesa County

A passerby strolls through Orchard Mesa Municipal Cemeteries under the late afternoon sun. This large burial ground in Grand Junction is often peaceful and quiet, with many graves decorated by flowers (both fresh and withered).
Caitlin Row / | Free Press


According to Grand Junction historian Garry Brewer, death and burial trends have changed a lot over the years.

Because the United States is a primarily Christian country, people have traditionally been buried facing east “because the sun comes out of the east and Christ is coming from the east,” Brewer said. “It’s an old Christian tradition going back to the start of the church.”

Brewer also noted that cremation may have taken hold over the years due to cost, but also because people have developed an aversion to being buried underground.

“Embalming didn’t come around until the 1860s, and before that there were instances of people being buried alive,” Brewer explained. For instance, bodies were sometimes placed in crypts with a bell “so someone could ring it to say they’re still alive.”

“George Washington asked to be laid out for three days to make sure he was dead before they buried him,” Brewer added. “That was in his will.”

Brewer noted another interesting tradition where people of the Jewish faith leave rocks on graves instead of flowers.

“It means someone came by to remember them,” he said.

Death. It’s mysterious, confusing, scary, heart-wrenching, and it happens to everyone. People don’t like to think about it until it comes to pass. Plus, what occurs after death — body disposition, funeral planning and end-of-life celebrations — may take as much planning as a wedding would, but in mere days rather than weeks.

That’s where mortuaries come into play; these places are ever bustling, assisting families with making the most difficult decisions about how to remember and honor loved ones after death. And they don’t just help with funeral basics — like coffins, urns, disposition of the body, and service arrangements.

“We’re able now to meet more needs than we were in the past,” Martin Mortuary Manager Richard Lewis said. “We provide counseling for grief therapy, help with state fraud protection, asset recovery, and help with bereavement travel, too.”

And with the assistance of funeral homes, folks are able to pre-plan for death ahead of time, to take the pressure off family and friends when the time comes.

“A lot of people who hit the age of 65 will start to think about pre-planning because they don’t want it left to family to decide,” Callahan-Edfast Mortuary General Manager Gary Blackburn said. “Most people don’t prepay, but they leave a family record for final wishes they don’t want to talk about before hand.”

In fact, both Blackburn and Lewis said the most important aspect of their business is the ability to adapt in all situations, from personalizing caskets and urns to serving favorite foods and making DVDs for life celebrations.

Funeral traditions seen decades earlier — like organ music and hymns — have also gone by the wayside in favor of more modern services.

“Baby boomers want their hands in the mix,” Lewis added. “They want to be a part of the planning process, not just participants in the service. They like to personalize things.”

For instance, Blackburn said folks often play a loved one’s favorite music at the service, anything from country to rock n’ roll.

“In the past, you would have never seen a burial come before a service, but now a lot of people do that,” he continued. “As for cremation, we have families that will cremate after they do a viewing,” which is another non-traditional practice.


According to Blackburn and Lewis, cremation is more common in the Grand Valley, far outnumbering instances of casket burials which were popular decades earlier.

Blackburn estimates that approximately 70 percent of his current business results in cremation of a body, while a century before, people in western Colorado generally selected burial in a coffin.

Why the change?

Favoring cremation is the result of “family tradition and practicality,” Lewis noted. “The cost of it is also less than traditional service with burial, and our viewpoints on death are changing.”

Plus, until fairly recently, Lewis said the Catholic Church did not allow cremation for its parishioners. Now, cremation is acceptable, as long as the ashes remain intact and are placed in the grounds of a cemetery.

Blackburn added that cremation is more popular in today’s increasingly migratory society, where people are less inclined to put down roots and stay in one place their whole lives.

“With cremation, you can pick up wherever you need to go,” he said.

Tom Ziola, the City of Grand Junction’s parks supervisor of forestry, horticulture and cemeteries, also noted a shift towards urns and ashes at Orchard Mesa Municipal Cemeteries as well as Crown Point Cemetery.

“We’re not seeing as many traditional burials,” Ziola said. “There are many more cremations. I think people are also taking their loved one’s ashes and spreading it elsewhere. They’re taking them to mountains, rivers or oceans, some favorite place, rather than putting ashes in the cemetery.”

Even so, many people living in the Grand Valley do chose to place cremated remains in both local cemeteries and there are a variety of options for them.

“We can actually put urns with cremations, as many as four, in a grave space,” Ziola said. “We offer a columbarium (at Orchard Mesa) as well — a niche of compartments in a granite structure, where names are engraved. This is designed for cremated remains above ground. There’s a cremation garden at Orchard Mesa, too,” made up of smaller sites with grave markers.

Another option for cremation is “boulders,” Ziola said, “large natural rocks where remains are placed inside. Then names and dates are etched on the boulder.” Still others may chose to honor their loved ones in a memorial forest — a program where trees are planted in memory of loved ones, and engraved names are placed on a memorial tree wall.

“Out at Crown Point, we are doing cremation urns and engraved spaces,” he added.

For those people who are planning on traditional casket burial, Ziola said grave sites must now be “vaulted,” a new practice which started for Grand Junction cemeteries in 2011.

“When the caskets collapse, if there’s not a vault there, the ground settles,” he said.

One cemetery standard continues to stay the same, however.

“They’re a special and sacred place to remember loved ones,” Ziola said. “We definitely see those sites visited and we take pride in what we do. Cemeteries are beautiful, serene places, special for all of us.”

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