A Good Day to Die

The rest is history at Rose Hill Cemetery.

Max Levin died on August 25, 1892, one month before Rose Hill Cemetery began keeping records. Although the details of what killed Max have faded from memory, it's easy to imagine what happened immediately after he died. The chevra kaddisha, the sacred society of Jewish men who consider preparation of the dead to be the ultimate mitzvah, would have arrived to wash his body, dress him in plain linen shrouds and his prayer shawl and place him in a plain pine coffin. Then Max would have been taken by horse-drawn hearse into the countryside now known as Commerce City. If this trip was made after dark, lanterns would have swung from the hearse as it traversed the sandy roads from west Denver, where, as a Jew, Max probably had lived.

When he was laid to rest, Max may have joined a few other Jews, their graves marked and otherwise -- but 107 years later, his grave is the earliest anyone can point to. Six thousand graves have been dug and filled there since Max arrived, and every month or so, someone knocks on the caretaker's door, asking to buy a plot. But since the odds that this person is Jewish are small, most are sent away, often to Riverside Cemetery, which is not far.

There are no roses at Rose Hill. Grass has replaced the dirt and pebbles that once stretched wall-to-wall between the headstones. The graveyard boundaries are marked by a rusting chain-link fence whose gate bears a discreet Star of David. A cattle guard still marks the north entrance, where weeds grow; there are no cattle to speak of in the neighborhood. What are there: low-slung brick houses, several mega truck stops, places where you can buy a single cold beer in a hurry, a gleaming new housing development that will look tired before five years have passed, an elementary school, a celebrated dog track.

A grave situation: Rose Hill is the final resting place for more than 6,000 Jews.
James Bludworth
A grave situation: Rose Hill is the final resting place for more than 6,000 Jews.
Stoney end: Visitors leave rock on gravestones as a symbol of rememberance.
James Bludworth
Stoney end: Visitors leave rock on gravestones as a symbol of rememberance.

Most of the people who have lived their entire lives in the Commerce City neighborhood that is known as Rose Hill have never been inside the gates of the cemetery, and its few modern-day updates have gone largely unnoticed. In the past year, for instance, Rose Hill's board of directors authorized the construction of a new brick building designed to house the cemetery office and an annex for tahara -- ritual washing and preparing of the dead -- as well as a shomer room, in which someone sits adjacent to the deceased all night, reciting psalms. The shomer room resembles a dentist's waiting room as much as anything else, and the annex in which it sits looks exactly like the other buildings at Rose Hill, though it's fifty years newer. It is not the kind of building that inspires curiosity.

In a way, that's just as well. What goes on at Rose Hill is what has always gone on at this unprepossessing place, which exists only to perform the final service for anyone who is a Jew -- by birth or by Orthodox conversion. Whether that Jew led a religious life or not is immaterial, because at Rose Hill, he is guaranteed a religious death.

Mr. Saliman and Mr. Goldstein, Members of the Board

Richard Saliman and David Goldstein are walking through the cemetery on an unseasonably warm fall day, looking for the graves of their mothers and fathers.

"Wasn't it just a few weeks ago I was doing this?" Mr. Saliman asks himself. "It took me half an hour. By now, I should know."

It was probably six weeks ago, during the High Holy Days, one of the many times each year that Jews honor their ancestors. Mr. Saliman's father and grandfather, and just about all of his Denver-born forebears, are buried here; he has a "reservation" at Rose Hill himself. He is a third-generation volunteer boardmember of the nonprofit cemetery, as well as a past president, like his grandfather and father before him.

Mr. Goldstein shares every one of these distinctions.

"My grandfather came here in 1888 from Poland. He came to Galveston, then Denver," Mr. Goldstein says, puffing a little to keep up with Mr. Saliman's pace. "In a covered wagon, so I'm told. And he settled in the ghetto called West Colfax. My grandma started a bakery. My grandfather never worked. He stayed busy studying Talmud and Torah."

"You and I grew up in the same terrace," Mr. Saliman recalls. "How old were we when we first met?"

"Excuse me? I don't hear so good."

"We must have been babies. Babies."

"Do you know how old we are?" Mr. Goldstein asks. "Both of us are 84."

Mr. Saliman and Mr. Goldstein have known each other forever, and their memories are sharp even if their hearing isn't. Indisputably, they are both pillars of the Jewish community -- but their effect, at least when they are wandering around outside, is more like that of a couple of eleven-year-old boys.

"We both went to Cheltenham Elementary School," Mr. Saliman says.

"Let me tell you, that's where every teacher in Denver wanted to work," says Mr. Goldstein. "It was 99 percent Jewish, so you had the smartest kids in the city. Plus you got all the Jewish holidays off, which made ten more days of vacation."

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