The Laying Out

One of my favorite parts about getting to be a tour guide at a massive historic cemetery is when people who have never been to our cemetery before (and even some who have) decide to venture into the grounds on their own, without a map or any sense of direction, insisting that they can find their way around. See, Bellefontaine cemetery is comprised of 314 acres with miles and miles of road that wind through it. And while we DO have a painted white line, self-guided tour that takes visitors past some of our most noteworthy and notable residents, it should be noted that this white line takes visitors deep within the cemetery.

The White Line Tour of Bellefontaine Cemetery

Venturing off of the line can and sometimes does turn around an unfamiliar individual very quickly, leading to a phone call made to the office that can rapidly turn into a very interesting game of Marco Polo. As a matter of fact, one of the interns I was supervising at the cemetery a few years ago did just this very thing while searching for a particular headstone. In her search, she had wandered away from her car, off the white line and far from any knowledge of the gate house where I, her fearless leader was positioned.

Now, to be fair, I was only minimally concerned when this happened for two reasons: first, I knew she wouldn’t find the grave she was looking for. Because it doesn’t exist. I always send my interns searching for this particular person so that they learn to look for what ISN’T there, in addition to what is. The individual in this instance is buried in an unmarked grave, a critical part of his story (to be told in later postings). Secondly, I knew that as long as my intern was within the gates, I would eventually find her, however it did make things a bit more interesting when her point of reference was a “Washington Monument-looking-grave” (also known as an obelisk, and of which we have hundreds within the cemetery).

Nevertheless, my intern learned an important lesson that day that is the subject of today’s posting: to know a cemetery, you really need to understand the layout.

I’m sure when you first read this blog title, you were thinking that I was going to discuss the ‘laying out’ of a body. This IS a blog about cemeteries after all, so I can’t really blame you there. And yes, that is shamelessly how I semi-pulled you into reading this posting. But since it obviously worked, I should point out that you weren’t completely duped. The laying out of a cemetery is similar to the way a person is laid out prior to their internment: It is done with care, thought, sometimes planning, and with a definite goal to reflect who a person was during their life. Bellefontaine is no exception. It’s design, the love and care that went into it from the planning of the horticulture (as with flowers that commonly adorn the person being laid to rest), the road design and even the property values reflect who the cemetery was during its life during the 1850’s. The ‘laying out’ of a cemetery, just like a person, can often tell us who ‘we’ were, who we are and who we will be during a specific time in our life.

What We Can Learn From a Layout

Take for example the fact that what is now the entrance of Bellefontaine along West Florissant Avenue was originally the back of the cemetery. Visitors entered the cemetery along Broadway, where the rolling green hills reached their peak, overlooking a beautiful vista of trees and water, perfect for those who would spend an eternity overlooking them…..if they could afford it. See, St. Louis during the time of the first Bellefontaine burial in 1850 was slowly but surely entering the age of industry that had already swept Europe and was beginning to creep its way across the U.S., although it would hit a brief snag during the Civil War. During this time, aspiring entrepreneurs who were experiencing great success in areas such as beer, shoes, newspaper and pharmaceuticals developed the desire to reflect their newfound status in death, as well as in life. While many people would think that the age of industry would actually increase the life expectancy of the average human, it actually lowered it as people became more exposed to industrial age diseases including cancer, cholera and tuberculosis. This led to a major desire of the rich and famous to reflect their wealth in death, as well as in life.

Bellefontaine cemetery, like other cemeteries of its kind and in an effort to cater to the tastes of the upper echelon of society, sold plots at the cemetery at varying costs. Essentially, a person’s final place of rest was purchased like real estate, an investment that would pay off for eternity (or until the money placed in trust ran out). Families purchased plots big enough for many future generations and paid for mausoleums that would cost millions of dollars today. Sometimes, like certain media-fame based families that need not be mentioned, these people were famous simply for being famous rather than for any major contribution to society. But, nevertheless, this meant that the average Joe could not afford to loiter among those who were above him in status, even in death. This is why today, Bellefontaine is home to what we affectionately refer to as mausoleum or ‘millionaire’s row’, where every marker is bigger, better and more ornate than the last, and mausoleums comprised entirely inside of marble and art-nouveau windows stand less than half full.

This portion of our cemetery majestically overlooks what is today an industrial park, while the back (now the front), was the perfect place for those who were unmarked, unwanted or unimportant in the eyes of trustees.

No better instance of this can be seen than in the case of Eliza Haycraft, a Civil War Era madame whose houses of ill-repute were so successful during the influx of soldiers from the North and South that she was able to donate thousands of dollars to the widowed and orphaned victims of the war. Now, this was a woman who came to St. Louis as a member of the profession she later came to run. She rose from illiteracy to great wealth and notoriety. For those of you who have seen Gone With the Wind, picture Belle. I swear that Margaret Mitchell had someone like Eliza in mind when she wrote the character. As the end of Eliza’s life approached, she desired to be buried in Bellefontaine where many of her clients would permanently sleep. However, due to her profession, the trustees of the cemetery reluctantly allowed her, after initial rejection, only to be buried in the far back of the cemetery, in a plot big enough for 20 and with the stipulation that her grave would remain unmarked.

This is not the only instance in which the way a cemetery and its residents were ‘laid out’ reflects the lifetime in which it lived. The northern and older portion of the cemetery holds many lawyers and statesmen buried within yards of each other who were all united in the major cause of the mid-1800’s when the cemetery was opened: civil rights. William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame is placed in the farthest northeast corner of the cemetery, overlooking the place where the Louisiana purchase expedition began.

Without question, the layout of the Bellefontaine is so deliberate and so reflective of a life that has changed over time and continues to do so even today. We can see this in our Garden of Angels, a private place of remembrance, shrouded in privacy by trees, adorned with beautiful flowers and a guardian statue.

The Garden of Angels. Photo Credit: Bellefontaine Cemetery

This area is provided by Bellefontaine as a final resting place for children whose parents can not afford to give them a place of burial. What does this reflect about our lifetime, that after only a short time ago this area lay vacant, and is now full to the point of requiring a new addition? I wish I could say that the children we have placed in this garden all peacefully went to their rest. But this just isn’t the case. What does the high rate of mortality for children show us regarding the quality of healthcare that each person receives? Yes, there are families from the mid-1800’s, like the Campbells, an affluent family with thirteen children only three of whom reached adulthood. Child mortality was an unfortunately common thing over a century ago. But the fact that we still need a designated place of rest for young children that is sadly added to far too often, demonstrates that we still have a long way to go in our quest to improve the quality of life for all human beings.

The Garden of Angels reflects the nature of our society which is often violent, dangerous and unceasingly unequal. Anyone entering Bellefontaine can see, if they look in the right way, that our layout is a mirror reflecting the life we lived and the society in which we now live. We must look, even when it is hard, just as we would at the wake of a loved one who has been laid out for mourners to remember. Seeing is how we remember, it is how we move on. We have to remember if we want to move on, if we want to heal. It truly is of the gravest importance that we look and remember.

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