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.