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  • Student artwork helps bring life to County cemetery

    On a bright Saturday morning, a few high school students met in a dusty corner of the cemetery. 

    The four University High School (UHS) students were there to answer the call from Pima County Medical Examiner Greg Hess, who wanted to find a way to bring some beauty and dignity to the final resting place of hundreds of individuals.

    “We wanted to look for ways to bring some life to this otherwise dreary place,” Hess said. 
    Student painting columbaria
    He decided to ask some of the high schools if their art students might want to beautify parts of the County-run cemetery. In particular, Hess wanted to add some color to a collection of columbaria, the above-ground vaults holding cremains.

    The columbaria hold the remains of indigent or unidentified people who at the time of their death were unclaimed, abandoned, or had next of kin who were financially unable to pay for arrangements. In these instances, the County provides interment services and lays the remains to rest in a County-owned section of Evergreen Mortuary, a cemetery at Oracle Road and Miracle Mile. 

    Hess came up with the idea prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, which put the plan on hold for months while schools closed, businesses shut down and much of the community remained at home. But with the reopening of the community under way, these students decided to answer the Medical Examiner’s call. 

    “I thought the beautification of a part of our community was a good thing,” said Adamari Rodriguez, a 2020 UHS graduate. 

    Rodriguez designed a Día de los Muertos-themed mural for one of the ends of the columbaria. The female figure in red with a skeleton face peering out from under a large-brimmed hat provided a sense a region and culture to the final resting places, Rodriguez said. 

    “These people weren’t able to have a proper headstone,” she added. 

    The Office of the Medical Examiner (OME) has responsibility for the cemetery and its upkeep. Hess said some efforts have been made to clear out weeds and debris from the County cemetery since the Medical Examiner’s office took over maintenance, but funding has not been available for larger improvements. 

    He decided to focus on the columbaria, because at about five feet tall and 15 or more feet long they are the most prominent features in that section of the cemetery. The columbaria, four in all, were built more for industrial durability than visual aesthetic. 

    Student paintingHess personally provided all the paint and other materials for the students to use in decorating the mausoleum. 

    “I thought this could be a good way for the students to show their art in a public place,” he said. 

    This isn’t the first effort to add some dignity and appeal to the anonymous resting places. Hess said other UHS art students and Medical Examiner staff previously painted and decorated some of the columbaria cast concrete niche covers, adding color and individuality to the otherwise uniform symmetry.

    Hess said the OME intends to continue working with the UHS art program and its students to decorate unadorned niche covers. 

    OME would also like to offer this niche cover opportunity to artistically inclined County employees to help in the effort to make the final resting place of so many a more appealing site. County employees who have an interest and would like to learn more about painting a cover, please call or email Chris Smith, Administrative Services Manager, at the Medical Examiner’s Office, at 724-8600.
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