Longform

GETTING HIS DIGS IN

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And though he views many of his opponents as standard-bearers for the pagan nation this country has become, Ron Lewis has an undertaker's confidence that in the end they will reach an accommodation with him.

Lewis began doing his part to fill and subdue the earth in 1950, when he was fifteen. A Denver native born to a working-class family, he was obsessed with the idea of making a life for himself in the mountains. Whatever it took, he vowed to own a piece of that rocky earth and force a living from it.

What it took was his motorcycle. Following an accident that the law blamed on his driving, Lewis was told by a judge to sell his bike or face jail time. Then came a coincidence in which he detected the hand of the Lord: Lewis happened on an ad for land in the foothills community of Indian Hills, forty acres up for trade for anything of value. The seller agreed to take Lewis's motorcycle and cash.

Young Lewis had picked up construction know-how by working weekends and summers in the trade. It was enough, he says, to enable him to knock together a rude approximation of a house, which he was able to sell the next year, partially covering his tuition at Colorado State University.

From there his progression to the cemetery trade was natural. By the age of eighteen he was devoting his summer breaks to hauling fertilizer, painting houses and building homes in the Evergreen area. The young construction magnate also owned his own backhoe, a fact that caught the attention of a local family that for years had been stuck with the task of digging graves at the community burial ground.

"They called and told me it was time to start doing my part," Lewis recalls. He was instructed to ready a plot for a recently departed resident. He did, only to get a call several days later. "They said, `Hey, you didn't put the covers on the poor guy,'" he remembers. A sheepish Lewis went back and filled in the grave.

Performing his new duties wasn't often easy. The steep dirt road to the burial area was eroded and treacherous in bad weather. At times, he recalls, the rocky site required blasting to loosen the earth. And it wasn't unusual for Lewis to begin digging at a spot picked by mourners in the poorly maintained cemetery only to discover that it was already occupied.

As the Evergreen area grew, Ron Lewis found more and more uses for his talents. His business empire expanded. "I'm an opportunist," he admits, though he sees his opportunities as God's opportunities.

The more digging Ron Lewis did in the graveyard near Evergreen, the more he wished for a cemetery that was better organized, roomier and more accessible. He didn't want a prissy city cemetery, though: he figured the place ought to share the rough, unpretentious character of the area. So in 1965 he bought the first section of his property below Berrian Mountain and started Evergreen Memorial Park.

Today Lewis looks with satisfaction out at the straggle of dilapidated buckboards, tillers and tractors that give his cemetery the look of pastureland with a past. "We don't manicure the grass or plant flowers here," he says. "This is the West, and things are kind of crude and abrupt. But it's real."

Lewis performed his first graveside service early in his backhoe career at the old community cemetery. As he waited for a group of relatives to say their goodbyes to a dead man prior to one burial, Lewis, who spent three years at a Denver Baptist seminary after graduating from CSU, was approached by a member of the party. "You going to say something for my dad?" she asked. "Her dad wasn't religious, and there was no minister there," Lewis remembers, "so I took off my coveralls and said a few words. The people thought it helped."

It's the same basic service Lewis still works at, preparing to preside at funerals by learning as much as he can about the deceased. "After one service, a guy came up to me and said, `Can I check the box?' he recalls. "I asked him what he meant," Lewis says. "He said, `Either I'm at the wrong funeral or you've got the wrong guy in the box. I knew the son of a bitch.'"

The least expensive funeral service Lewis offers is a simple cremation. For $550, the client gets "immediate removal of the remains, cremation and a plastic can of ashes." He doesn't recommend it. "We're a territorial species," he says. "We need a place to go that's our own."

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Richard Fleming