Historic Cemeteries

Whether sparsely maintained or meticulously groomed, Montana’s historic cemeteries often demonstrate a community’s permanence, cultural traditions, and respect for the dead. Burial traditions have never been consistent, however. Some Indigenous peoples in the Northern Plains interred their dead above ground with the belief that an open-air interment allowed the spirit to travel freely. While this practice still occasionally takes place in remote areas, the arrival of Euro-American settlers brought great changes to mortuary practices.

Early Montana cemeteries differed substantially from the peaceful, parklike resting places that characterize twenty-first century cemeteries. The non-permanence of Montana’s first communities meant cemeteries were often haphazard and graves were typically unmarked. The gold rush-era brought permanent settlements, and formal burial grounds, but even these had no design or maintenance. Simple wooden crosses or inscribed wood slabs marked the graves and most deteriorated over time.

Montana’s first tombstone makers arrived in the 1870s, producing affordable granite and marble headstones, including obelisks, which were popular in the 1870s and 1880s. Stone markers reflected Montana’s social and cultural diversity. In hard-rock and coal mining communities, for example, many headstones feature Russian writing in Cyrillic script. Headstones bearing symbols of fraternal organizations are ubiquitous across Montana, as are military headstones, which assert the equal importance of each service member through their uniform shape and size.

In the 1830s, landscape architects on the East Coast began incorporating European influences, developing rural garden cemeteries, which in turn evolved into lawn cemeteries. Arriving in Montana in the late nineteenth century, both styles have parklike appearances, defined walkways, and cultural expression through gravestone art and tomb architecture. Maintaining a parklike appearance requires perpetual care; both Helena’s Forestvale Cemetery, founded in 1890, and Kalispell’s C. E. Conrad Memorial Cemetery, founded in 1905, had funds dedicated to ongoing maintenance.

Burial practices evolved again in the 1920s when a nationwide movement toward communal mausoleums brought many Classical Revival style buildings to cemeteries. The trend never flourished in Montana, but those in Billings and Red Lodge remain landmarks. Strolling through one of Montana’s oldest or youngest cemeteries, visitors can easily learn about a community’s people and history.

Home of Peace

Tranquil, well-cared for grounds provide a lovely setting for the final resting place of many pioneers. The cemetery, established in 1867, is Helena’s oldest active cemetery, Montana’s oldest Jewish cemetery, and one of very few cultural remnants of…

Silver City Cemetery

Traders, ranchers, farmers, miners, homesteaders, veterans, and children lay silently here in this small, still-active, community cemetery. Simple, mostly unadorned grave markers are all that remain of Silver City, a small transportation hub and…

Benton Avenue Cemetery

Scattered wooden markers, tall marble obelisks, and iron fences enclosing family plots memorialize the pioneers who rest in this early burial ground. Lewis and Clark County established the cemetery in 1870. In 1875, remains from the original mining…

Forestvale Cemetery

In 1889, the year Montana became a state, the growing city of Helena realized its need for a cemetery in addition to the three sponsored by religious bodies. A group of investors purchased these 160 acres, which a local newspaper called “bleak and…

Dearborn Cemetery

Pioneers, homesteaders, ranchers, veterans, and children are among the silent occupants who lie beneath the sod in this small, still active, community cemetery. The area has a rich cultural heritage. Before the arrival of trappers, traders,…

Post Cemetery

Established on less than an acre of ground north of the main buildings, Fort Missoula’s post cemetery is still in active use. The first person buried here was Private William Gerick in 1878. Subsequently, soldiers who served in the Civil War, Indian…

Hillside Cemetery

Seven hundred souls lie beneath the sod here in Virginia City’s community cemetery. Boot Hill across the ridge to the west was the first burial ground, but after interment of five road agents there in January 1864, citizens preferred to bury…

C. E. Conrad Memorial Cemetery

One fine fall day in 1902, Kalispell founder Charles E. Conrad and his wife Alicia took a last horseback ride to this area and rested on the narrow overlook where the valley spread below.  Charles told his wife there could be no lovelier place for…

Bearcreek Cemetery

A large red granite monument commemorates the 75 miners who died in the 1943 explosion at the Smith Mine. The United Mine Workers of America installed this memorial in 1947 to memorialize Montana’s worst coal mining disaster. Twenty-two of the Smith…

Red Lodge Communal Mausoleum

The Consolidated Mausoleum Company made the case for constructing a communal mausoleum in a full-page newspaper advertisement in 1921. “The present high state of civilization demands for the masses a more humane and sanitary method of taking care of…

Billings Communal Mausoleum

“If a Mansion in Heaven for the Soul, Why Not a Palace on Earth for the Body” read a 1919 advertisement for the Billings Communal Mausoleum. Intrigued by the “opportunity … to sleep through eternity … secure against the ravages of time,” over…