A contest for the best epitaph and a burial sign-up sheet greeted visitors to a cemetery "open house" in Girdwood on Sunday.
With ghoulish jokes, the organizers set up the event to gather suggestions for what's slated to be the first new cemetery built in Anchorage in decades. People were encouraged to wear bushwhacking clothes and wander the 7-acre parcel of wooded, mossy land along Crow Creek Road that may someday be turned into paths with grave markers.
A dream promoted for years by former Girdwood Board of Supervisors member Tommy O'Malley, the Girdwood cemetery is inching closer to reality, though many questions remain about what it will look like and how to pay for it.
"It's in the 'I think' stage," said Girdwood resident and retired state trooper Mike Opalka. "The 'it would be nice' stage."
The planned cemetery also happens to be next door to a well-known private lodge that hosts events, including weddings. In the middle of Sunday's open house, the neighbors confronted O'Malley, questioning the project and accusing O'Malley of being dishonest and evasive about the plans.
"He's talking about 300 graves right up my property line," said John Deal, who has lived on a 3-acre property behind the lodge for more than a decade. "Every spring, the view from my yard will be graves."
O'Malley and other supporters say Girdwood deserves a cemetery where longtime residents can be buried. People who live in the ski hamlet of about 2,000 see it as its own town, though it's technically a neighborhood in Anchorage.
In 2015, Girdwood voters authorized the Girdwood Board of Supervisors to collect property taxes to pay for the planning, operation and upkeep of the cemetery. The board has set the budget at $20,000 a year. With tax dollars in play, there's been grumbling about whether Anchorage residents will be allowed in. The city-owned Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery downtown is just a few decades' worth of bodies from being full.
On Sunday, O'Malley, a soft-spoken but politically vocal former kindergarten teacher with a graying ponytail, stood in a wide-brimmed hat and Xtratufs with a small group in a clearing on the cemetery land, swatting flies and mosquitoes. He joked that Girdwood residents will get the "pretty part" of the cemetery.
Rob Jones, the director of the city-owned Anchorage cemetery, stood nearby. Jones and his staff have agreed to manage the Girdwood cemetery once it's built. Over a map, O'Malley outlined some of his vision: a natural cemetery with tall trees, meandering paths and graves marked by stones or GPS.
Soon the group dispersed into the trees. Ellen Twiname followed one path, avoiding prickly plants. She came to a halt in a mossy, shaded clearing.
"See, this is where the mushrooms are going to grow," Twiname said. "You can put me right here."
Later, Twiname told O'Malley that she imagined a grove with a bench and stones with the names of her friends and neighbors.
O'Malley said the best epitaph he'd seen so far had been submitted by a Girdwood artist: "Mariano Gonzales. Artist. He drew his last breath."
Twiname, a snowboarder, came up with this suggestion: "She shredded her mortal coil."
As O'Malley, Twiname and others emerged from the woods, two people walked up — Cathy Frost, the owner of the Raven Glacier Lodge, and Deal, who lives behind the lodge.
Both were furious at O'Malley. Frost told him she never received emailed information about the project she was promised. And she said the distance between her lodge and the cemetery is much smaller than she was originally led to believe.
"I was lied to from the beginning here. It hasn't started out on a good foot for me," Frost said, facing O'Malley on the bluff above the road. "And I'm the most affected by it — my business, my property value, my everything."
O'Malley told her all of the information about the project has been available online and through city meeting records. He acknowledged he hadn't sent it to her directly.
Frost said she was concerned about what she called the "creep factor" of the cemetery. She and Deal both questioned whether Girdwood needed a cemetery, and if some of the ideas around trees and buried caskets were realistic in a place with bears, wet ground and far-reaching roots.
Back at the booths for the open house, the handful of people who attended the event said they supported the vision. Kalie Harrison, 48, was even spending her birthday afternoon there: "I'm very interested in dying here."
Girdwoodians love trails and memorializing friends and family, Harrison said. She said she plans to push to preserve the tall trees and build a cemetery that feels like a park.
Comments from the open house are being relayed to the Anchorage-based engineering firm CRW, which is drawing up a preliminary design and project cost estimate, O'Malley said. At that point, cemetery supporters will look for ways to raise the construction money. Monthly public meetings are being held to flesh out the plans, said Heather Hall, a member of the Girdwood cemetery committee.
By the end of Sunday's open house, about a dozen people had signed up, saying they want to be buried in Girdwood.