Denver’s Fairmount Cemetery is not just a final resting place — it’s a rose’s utopia

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Christiana Ceniceros tends to plants in the greenhouses at High Country Roses in Broomfield, July 21, 2023.

A cemetery is often thought of as a solemn place of grief; many people only visit when they are saying a final goodbye. But Fairmount Cemetery, Denver's second-oldest cemetery, has been much more for many since 1890. 

The large green spaces and communal gathering spots create a park-like atmosphere. Fairmount's 280 acres are teeming with life — abundant trees, birds, wildlife, and gardens — all making it an appealing spot for a leisurely stroll, a bike ride, or even a picnic, and Denver's history is all around.

“We are a wildlife-designated area. We've just received that this year,” said Robin Brilz, the director of the Fairmount Heritage Foundation for Fairmount and Riverside cemeteries.

While both cemeteries still provide burials, Brilz says they also offer historical tours at both Riverside and Fairmount to preserve the history of the cemeteries. 

Being Denver's largest arboretum, a variety of animals call Fairmount home. Brilz said the cemetery has been home to foxes, coyotes, mule deer, and several types of birds. 

“We get the migratory birds that come through here as well during the spring and fall,” Brilz said. “So it's kind of a resting area for them as they're traveling through.”

Eden Lane/CPR News
A sign announces the Old Rose Garden at Fairmount Cemetery in Denver. The garden is home to many roses that can't be found anywhere else.

Brilz said the tour guides and researchers have created fascinating ways to explore the grounds and history, including the famous women's tour, now called “Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History.” 

For many, however, the crown jewel of Fairmount’s offerings is the seasonal Rose Garden tour. A Fairmount employee named Joanne Cohen established the heritage rose garden in 1995 to preserve many of the vintage roses that families had planted. Brilz says some varieties are still unknown, and others have become part of the heritage of the place. 

“A couple of the found roses that we have [are] the Fairmount Red, and it's basically a found rose because we just couldn't tell where it was coming from, or the species, or the name,” Brilz said. “Now there's Fairmount Proserpine. Of course we have the Harison's Yellow, which we believe is the Yellow Rose of Texas.”

Beyond seeing those roses in the Fairmount Heritage Garden, the rose program and tour is devoted to preserving and propagating the plants so people can buy them and have them in their own gardens. 

Matt Douglas is the third-generation owner of High Country Roses, which was started by his stepfather in 1970. 

“He was a pediatric urologist here in Denver, Dr. William Campbell. And he started the business largely as kind of a plant trading business,” Douglas said. 

Eden Lane/CPR News
Late season roses bloom at the Fairmount Cemetery in Denver.

Now the business has grown into a small rose nursery specializing in own-root roses, old garden roses, and hard-to-find plants. 

“We ship about 40,000 plants around the country every year, and part of that mission is really a dedication to protect, preserve, and keeping [in] commerce what we call old garden roses,” Douglas said. 

Douglas said Dr. Campbell was actually part of the initial group of aficionados that cataloged the roses with the team at Fairmount.

“Gosh, it must have been in the 80s, maybe even a little earlier than that, in an effort to identify the species, and work towards preservation in terms of getting some of those hard-to-find roses moved into a spot where they can all thrive together, and get a little bit better care,” Douglas said. “If you walk through Fairmount Cemetery late May, early June, you just are overwhelmed by the number of plants that are there. You know, roses have always been important to people, and especially in the cemetery.” 

The roses at Fairmount are a testament to that love — the love among relatives and others with people buried there — way back when that rose was planted.

High Country Roses propagates and preserves the plants at its nursery to assist the Fairmount, Heritage Foundation with its yearly sale. 

“We do provide them with roses so that they can do a big rose sale. You can buy, literally, just buy the same roses that are growing in the cemetery if you want to grow 'em in the yard,” Douglas said. 

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In one of the greenhouses at High Country Roses in Broomfield, July 21, 2023.
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Christiana Ceniceros holds a young Fairmount Rose at High Country Roses in Broomfield, July 21, 2023.
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
An Austin Pink Damask Fairmount Rose at High Country Roses in Broomfield, July 21, 2023.

The roses are also available on the nursery website throughout the year, “but we definitely grow them primarily with a focus of helping the … Foundation do a little bit of a fundraiser so that they can continue their efforts in preserving that wonderful cemetery.” Douglas said. 

It’s not all plants and animals though at Fairmount. There are even older ways to dive into the history of the place.

“One of the newer ones we have is a symbolism tour. So as you're walking through, you might see a certain symbol on a headstone,” Brilz said. “Sue Small, one of our newer tour guides, has researched these symbols and put together the symbolism tour. We now call it ‘Tales That Tombstones Tell.’”

Small says she has loved cemeteries since she was a tiny child, so it was natural for her to conduct tours at Fairmount. Small approached the foundation about volunteering. 

“Because I realized, especially during the pandemic, that I was spending even more time walking through Fairmount Cemetery than I normally did. And I thought, ‘My gosh, why am I not just volunteering for them?’” Small said.

Small’s symbolism tours focus on Victorian symbolism. 

Courtesy Robin Brilz/Fairmount Heritage Foundation
A bush of roses blooms near some headstones at Fairmount Cemetery in Denver. The cemetery is home to varieties of roses, some of which have been very difficult to identify and some that are unique to the property.

“So you see so many symbols that are very specific to what Victorians of that period, 1890 to mid-1910s, would have on their gravestones, whether it be fraternal organization, symbols such as Freemasons [or the] Independent Order of Odd Fellows,” Small said. “You'll see Knights of Pythias,  Woodmen of the World, various different organizations. Those are always fun to find.”

Brilz says the Fairmount Heritage Foundation volunteers incorporate many types of lively activities on the grounds. That includes an annual August car show with 300-400 cars.

“We have the classic cars come in, we park 'em all down millionaires row and the cemetery is open that Sunday. And people just come to basically the car show, look at the cars and enjoy some good music and some food trucks,” Brilz said. 

If you think that sounds rather boisterous and lively for a cemetery, Brilz acknowledged it can be. 

“It's a family day, you know, reach out to the community and come and enjoy the cemetery, come and enjoy the cars, the good music.” Brilz said.

For Small, her own personal connection with the cemetery is one she thinks others can have as well — so long as they take the time to look.

Small says that if you go through the cemetery and  see a headstone with a symbol or a name that strikes you, take a picture of it. 

“Start researching it. I think you'll be absolutely amazed at the stories you find,” Small said.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
An Austin Pink Damask Fairmount Rose readies to bloom at High Country Roses in Broomfield, July 21, 2023.