Bellefontaine Cemetery is a delightful mixture of architectural styles, amazing trees and graves of St. Louis historic figures but the stories connected with all those elements are what make a tour of the cemetery such fun.
I spent a couple of hours Thursday on a tour with a master guide from the Friends of Bellefontaine Cemetery, a group formed in 2013 to support the colorful cemetery. It sponsors all sorts of events and tries to bring people information about the cemetery that will spark interest.
Research is the key. Looking through old records and hearing stories from families of people buried in the cemetery have produced some fun stuff.
The cemetery is 314 acres on West Florissant Road just off Interstate 70 in unincorporated St. Louis County. It has 14 miles of roads, more than 5,000 trees and 87,000 burials including some of the key figures in St. Louis history like explorer William Clark, airport founder Albert Lambert and Washington University founder William Greenleaf Eliot.
The cemetery was founded in 1849 in the midst of a cholera epidemic which killed more than 7,000 in St. Louis. It followed the emerging concept of rural cemeteries for cities because land in cities was too valuable to be used for burials and it was thought that getting the dead away from the living was healthier.
It was to be no more than five miles from city limits but at least two miles away.
It began with 138 acres that was the Hempstead family farm complete with several graves dating back to 1817.
The cemetery is also an arboretum with a map of significant tree species as well as a map of significant graves. There are 10 Medal of Honor winners including eight from the Civil War.
A white line down the middle of some roads marks the tour route with numbered markers at notable spots.
14 Miles of roads
The mausoleum of Adolphus Busch, founder of the beer dynasty, is magnificent but the back story is just as great. The spot originally had a mausoleum holding some of the Anheuser family but Adolphus’ wife, Lilly, who was an Anheuser before marriage, had it torn down and erected her own building complete with stained glass windows for her and her husband. The Anheusers were moved outside.
Some of the graves, such as that of William Burroughs, author of “Naked Lunch,” attract visitors who leave coins and other items on graves. A favorite gift at Burroughs’ grave is heirloom tomatoes which he loved.
The Friends are doing research on some odd lots, such as the one owned by the St. Louis National Guard which has seven burials though there is room for about 50. They are trying to track down who might have ownership of the lot now since the organization no longer exists. They know for sure it isn’t the Missouri National Guard but little else.
The guides spend a lot of time talking about the symbolism on the stones and markers in the cemetery. For example, a family name followed by a period means there were no heirs to carry on the name. And an obelisk which is broken means some sort of tragedy or a promising life not fulfilled accompanied the death.
Stories are still being uncovered. A family member brought in insurance papers backing a story of a female relative who was attending a funeral and died in the cemetery. When she stepped into her carriage, the horse spooked, causing her to fall and hit her head. She is buried there.
An insurance company challenged the claim as preposterous when it was submitted. Now the friends are looking for any paperwork about the incident which surely must be in the files.
For more information on the cemetery or the friends group and their tours, you can visit the web site: bellefontainecemetery.org.