A City Plot

February 25, 2007


Lafayette Shideler died in 1879. No stone marks her grave. A family member, Anna, died in 1903. Another, Thomas, in 1907. All three are buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Colorado Springs, in a six-grave family plot.

That’s all cemetery officials know about the Shideler family. The other three graves were never used, maybe because the rest of the family moved west with the frontier, maybe because there were no more Shidelers here.

Their plot is the oldest of 174 bought in Evergreen and Fairview cemeteries at least 75 years ago that have unused space.

The two city-owned cemeteries are taking the empty graves back.

When the first burials at Evergreen took place in the 1860s, it was on the outskirts of a frontier outpost. Today it’s in the heart of a thriving city, where land is at a premium, and cemetery officials say there is too much wasted space.

“This is a burial ground. You want to use every foot,” said William DeBoer, manager of the cemeteries.

If a plot hasn’t been used in at least 75 years — a recent change in state law reduced the requirement from 100 years — the city can retake the unused plots after advertising the owners’ names.

Officials have run ads in The Gazette listing 144 names from Evergreen and 30 from Fairview. If the buyers, or anyone who can prove they are a descendant, don’t contact the city by April 14, officials will sell the unused plots.

They’ve been doing this every couple of years for a decade. Only twice has someone reclaimed a plot. In the last round of grave reclamations, the YMCA claimed ownership of some plots. This month, the cemetery heard from another organization that owned some old spots: Pikes Peak Lodge No. 5 of the Free and Accepted Masons.

“We’ve had a lot of calls from families expressing interest, but the burden of proof lies with the family,” DeBoer said.

There are more than 92,000 people buried at the two cemeteries. DeBoer said there are as many as 1,500 plots bought decades ago that will probably never be used if they are not reclaimed.

Along with publishing the names, officials search for any address changes. They found four.

“The cemetery is already an afterthought and when they move, they don’t think about calling the cemetery and giving their new address,” he said.

Any old cemetery will have some abandoned spaces, but there may be factors unique to Colorado Springs.

For much of Colorado Springs’ history, particularly from the 1890s through World War II, it was known as a sanitarium town. Tuberculosis sufferers came here for the thin air and mild climate.

“People would come here hoping to be cured,” said Matt Mayberry, director of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. “I’d imagine that many thought they were going to die here and bought a plot.”

Some were probably cured — or at least they began feeling better — and moved on.

And the other migrants who came here when the town was young, from “Pikes Peak or bust” miners to railroad workers to pioneers heading to California, also were not stable types.

“I think there were factors unique to the West,” Mayberry said. “The West was fairly new and people would relocate, spend a few years there and move on, looking for greener pastures.”

DeBoer acknowledged there is a financial motivation to reclaim the unused plots.

Though the cemeteries have the space to accommodate another 50 to 100 years of deaths, developing the space is expensive.

Many of the unused plots are in the heart of Evergreen Cemetery, plots that today can fetch up to $1,300 per space. “Cemetery plots are just like real estate — location, location, location,” he said.

Today, it would cost the Shideler family $7,800 for the six-grave plot.

In 1879, they paid $5.

List of Names