If you died in the Grand Canyon during the 19th century, chances are you were buried where you fell. But in the early 1900s, pioneers found a clearing about a quarter mile from the south rim amidst the ponderosa pine. Park Cultural Program Manager Ellen Brennan said it’s one of the few places that doesn’t have kaibab limestone at the surface.
“And so to be able to get a place where you can get this much depth is extremely rare,” Brennan said.
The Pioneer Cemetery is tucked beside a non-denominational church called the Shrine of the Ages. The small graveyard is filled with mostly non-traditional headstones — rocks that formed the canyon itself.
The cemetery is the final resting place for 400 explorers, scientists and Native Americans who made the Grand Canyon what it is today. And after almost a century, it’s at capacity. No more new plots.
Captain John Hance’s grave was the first official burial in 1919 just before the Grand Canyon became a national park. Hance was known for his stories. When the canyon would fill with clouds, he told tales of riding his horse across them.
“So the size of this grave is bigger than he was to represent the fact that he was a man of tall tales,” Brennan said.
His footstone is indeed several feet from his headstone.
Not far from Hance are the graves of William and Ada Bass.
“She ended up actually hating the Grand Canyon,” Brennan said. “It was a tough life for her because living out remote in south Bass area she’d have to hike her laundry down to the river to do her washing. So when she had children she would always leave.”
When William Bass wasn’t dragging his wife back to the canyon, he mined copper and asbestos and built roads for tourists. Bass also lobbied the federal government on behalf of the Havasupai to get them a school, medical and farming assistance.
The cemetery holds the stories of the great people who lived long lives at the canyon, but it also holds stories of great tragedies. The remains of 23 of the 128 people who died in the TWA-United airplane crash over the Grand Canyon in 1956 are buried at the cemetery.
“The site is now a national historic landmark,” Brennan said. “It was quite difficult to do the recovery and clean-up of that crash. There are still small bits of human remains, aircraft debris, personal belongings that are at that site. It really is hallowed ground. From that tragedy came the development of the FAA, as we know it today, and aircraft safety became much improved after what these poor people suffered.”
As part of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the park service buried several Native American remains at the cemetery — remains that had been in the park’s museum collection for many years. Eleven tribes have cultural ties to the Grand Canyon.
Aside from a few exceptions, to be buried at Pioneer Cemetery you had to either have made a significant contribution to the park, or have lived in the park for at least three years.
“There was a time early in the days of the cemetery when you could make a reservation,” Brennan said. “And those are the spaces we have left. So I’ve been here since 1978 and I always thought I’d be buried here. It’s disappointing only in that my daughter won’t have a place to come visit me. I intend to have my ashes scattered here at the canyon. So I’ll still be here.”
Some aren’t so keen on that idea, like Grand Canyon artist Bruce Aiken who along with his wife Mary raised a family five miles below the rim. They lived there for 33 years running the canyon’s water system and serving as ambassadors for the park. Aiken, who considered the canyon his muse, decided long ago he should be buried at the Pioneer Cemetery next to fellow Grand Canyon artist Gunnar Widforss.
“I said, ‘I’ll get cremated,’” Aiken said. “‘I’ll be a can this big.’ Boom, drop it in, put another piece of limestone there.”
Aiken said he believes there should be plots remaining for people who made a difference at the park — people like himself.
“All the historical stuff should not be lost off just because we couldn’t find a way to expand that cemetery,” Aiken said.
Park Ranger Ron Brown has one of the last plots at the Pioneer Cemetery.
“I kinda got it the hard way,” Brown said.
Brown was on the cemetery committee when they were deciding whether to close it to new burials. It was about this time when his wife, also a long-time park ranger, discovered she had cancer and died.
“She’s one of those little girls who from five years old, when daddy took her traveling to national parks, she fell in love with it and wanted to be a park ranger all her life,” Brown said. “I was smart enough to know I wanted whatever she wanted.”
So he was allowed to choose a plot for both of them. He found the perfect spot, where twin pine trees grew together.
“This was considered to be the indigent section,” Brown said. “So these were the ordinary people. And to me that was exactly the right thing.”
But to Brown, everyone at Pioneer Cemetery is special.
“There are places that are unknown burials, their contribution to this place and to this park was every bit as critical as the most famous person here,” Brown said. “You can safely say every square inch of this cemetery is hallowed ground of people who came to the Grand Canyon, and cherished this place and wanted to be part of it.”
Today Brown gives cemetery tours. He always ends his tours at his own grave.
He reminds visitors that sooner or later our lives will flash before our eyes and we’re all going to end up in a place like this. So make sure you have a life worth watching. The people here had lives worth watching.