Longform

GETTING HIS DIGS IN

Page 3 of 5

"Inurnment" plots half the size of a regular grave can be had in the Garden of the Pioneers for only $375. Or for $750, space awaits one's cremains in a frontier-style columbarium, a monument of mortared rock and old timbers that looks like half a cabin wedged into a fireplace. Not one to make less than efficient use of land, Lewis is also filling a ravine in the park with double-depth vaults. The floor of the gully has been leveled, and rows of the five-foot concrete sleeves are lined up side by side, their rims a foot below ground level, waiting like file drawers for contents meant to be "Together Forever," as one marker reads.

Most of the cemetery, however, is restricted to flat grave markers, giving the grounds a sprawling high plains look broken here and there by small stands of young, dwarfish trees. Gazing over the rolling terrain and beyond a pond that might have recently been a watering hole, the eye jolts over ten acres of Lewis-owned fields that have been equipped with soccer nets. Two turquoise Porta-Lets jut up in the corner.

"There'll be 700 kids here Saturday playing soccer," Lewis explains. "I don't think it's inappropriate to celebrate life in a place that honors death."

The cache of Old West memorabilia on display at his homesite also is a drawing card for school kids, Lewis adds, pointing to a rack of aged carbines that sits above a row of sample funeral urns in his office. Against another wall leans an armload of tarnished swords; scattered between his office and Carol's are various Indian implements and collectibles. "We're almost a museum here," Lewis says.

And almost a zoo. Behind an eight-foot Cyclone fence at Evergreen Memorial Park, the goatlike deer imported from Europe flit half-spooked around a half-acre of dirt, skittering like blown leaves into a tin shed at a human's approach. In a larger chain-link enclosure, a large bull elk stands, its antlers soaring against the grid of the ten-foot fence.

"It's fun for kids to get a look at wildlife," says Lewis of his makeshift wild-animal park. "Some of the schools have field trips out here."

Lewis's "game preserve" strikes some observers as merely crude. "Why would you want to look at elk in a pen when you can see them wandering free through your own front yard?" asks area resident Howard Morton, who chairs the Mt. Evans chapter of the Sierra Club. "If you want to see buffalo, you can drive up to the overlook off I-70 twelve miles from there," Morton adds.

Lewis shrugs off criticism of his animal collection. He keeps the buffalo, elk and deer for business reasons as well, he notes, selling the offspring to slaughterhouses that cater to customers seeking low-cholesterol red meats.

"Our ministry is to people," says Lewis. Serve your fellow man and you serve God, he believes. Which is why Lewis the undertaker does pet funerals. "I don't do funerals for dogs, I do funerals for people--to help them heal from their loss," he explains. Lewis has seen more than one person grieve harder for a dog than for a parent.

Animals laid to rest in Memorial Park's pet cemetery now total about 45, with horses, deer and elk among the group. And Lewis is willing to go the extra yard for the bereaved pet owner--right up to providing grooming and embalming services for the deceased.

The animals he keeps on the other side of the wire fit in with Lewis's view of life and death, reminding him of the closeness of nature and the need for man to manage it. Sorting out good breeding stock includes "selective destruction," keeping the best and sending the rest to slaughter, Lewis explains. It's the same with land developing. Building involves destruction--a fact of life that parts Lewis from the company of those who see themselves as defenders of nature.

For fifteen years he's been fighting the tide of popular opinion on Bear Mountain Vista, a luxury-home development he began in the Sixties and sold in part, he says, to then-developer Roy Romer, whose company put in an adjoining subdivision called Evergreen Highlands.

Lewis's development five miles south of Evergreen includes a number of residences ringing a 33-acre meadow--a prime parcel that the residents themselves have prevented him from subdividing. "They call it `our meadow,'" Lewis complains. "I've owned it for 32 years."

The homeowners counter that Lewis's development of the meadow would deplete the area's already overtaxed water table. "We're all on wells, and our wells are drawing down," says Jean Pulliam, a retiree and member of the local homeowners' association. Additional development would also worsen the quality of water in the Indian Hills area, downslope of Bear Mountain, Pulliam says.

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Richard Fleming