A local cemetery that instills joy, not sadness
By Jayson Jacoby
Baker City Herald Editor
There is a certain sort of cemetery which can make a visitor’s impending death seem rather less melancholy than is typical.
Rock Creek Cemetery in Baker Valley is such a place.
I don’t as a rule go around pondering my inevitable demise.
But of course cemeteries tend to prompt such thoughts.
As we drove past Rock Creek Cemetery on a recent sun-dappled Sunday morning (which is most Sunday mornings in July in these parts) I was so taken by the simple beauty of the scene that I felt, rather than maudlin, a kind of joy at the thought of concluding a good life, well-lived, in so sublime a spot.
The perfectly groomed, lush lawn reminded me of nothing so much as one of the military cemeteries that England constructed in Northern France and Belgium after the First World War.
The English affinity for gardens is well known, of course, and is reflected in their burying grounds.
Even if a preference for the pastoral were not part of the nation’s character, though, I suspect Britain’s war cemeteries would look pretty much as they do. There must have been a powerful need, after so much blood had been shed (the British lost about a million soldiers in the war, a terrible tally, yet compared with Russia, France and Germany they got off light), to not merely bury the terrible bones-and-steel detritus of mechanized war but to grace it with a veneer of the living and tranquil green.
Rock Creek Cemetery hasn’t such a tragic legacy, and anyway it needs no artificial embellishments.
It comes by its grandeur naturally, from its setting in a fine and verdant valley within sight of two imposing mountain ranges.
The nearer of these, rising steep and timbered just a couple miles to the west, are the Elkhorns.
Whether this is the grandest vista from any of our local cemeteries is of course a subjective question, lacking any definitive answer.
The nearby Haines Cemetery, for instance, no doubt has many admirers, and for good reason. Its location, atop a minor rise, adds an ethereal, bird’s-eye quality to the view which is lacking at Rock Creek.
Still and all, the sheer majesty of the Elkhorns from Rock Creek Cemetery, the soaring granite of Red Mountain, the forested eminence of Hunt Mountain, seems to me unrivalled.
Connie Brown, a lifelong Haines resident, has been taking care of both the Rock Creek and Haines cemeteries for 18 years.
They are part of a district, which includes Haines and parts of Baker Valley, in which property owners pay a tax each year to maintain the two cemeteries.
(They get a discount on burial plots, too, if they choose either cemetery.)
I remember when Rock Creek Cemetery was rather disheveled, the grass dry and high, the weeds rank.
Brown said that when she was hired, the considerable task of keeping up with the weeds and the wind damage and the occasional trespassing cow had become too much for the previous caretaker.
She set about putting things in order in the cemetery, which covers about 4ﬁ acres (Haines Cemetery is almost exactly the same size).
With help from co-workers, as well as inmates from the Powder River Correctional Facility, she tamed the weeds, had gravel access roads built and, perhaps most important, a well was dug to supply irrigation water to nourish the grass.
“It took a lot of work, and it still takes a lot of work,” Connie said. “We try to make it a little better every year.”
Connie said that when she started, about 75 percent of the burials at Rock Creek were traditional ones, with a casket, and the remainder were cremations, with an urn burial.
Today the percentages are about the opposite.
One of the main reasons for the change, she said, is that some years ago the cemetery district ceased selling plots for casket burials. Burying caskets is troublesome because the water table is high and there’s an old subterranean stream channel on the property.
Plots are available for urn burials, however.
I’ve not given any great amount of thought to how I want my remains dealt with. I have no objection to cremation — there’s a aspect of purification to the process that appeals to me — but I rather like the notion of being buried more or less intact, to gradually meld with the good earth, perhaps to nurture some worthwhile root with my meager contribution to the soil.
Better still if my final plot lies within the shadows of the great peaks, that I might retain a vestigial link with those high places I loved best.
Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.