Cracked and water-stained gravestones across the Missoula Municipal Cemetery's oldest sections tell of lives cut short by insanity, alcoholism and hard work. Thousands of the mossy markers include just the most basic details—name, year of birth, year of death—but the dusty records housed in the cemetery's office paint a picture of what it was to live in a Missoula where saloons outnumbered churches and a railroad man could pay to spend the night under the care of madam Mary Gleim.
Gleim operated a "boarding house" in what was then the city's red light district on West Front Street until she died in 1914. Her gravestone is a massive granite monument that towers over the significantly smaller marker belonging to her husband.
Gleim's is the only stone at the Missoula burial grounds that doesn't face east to west, says cemetery record keeper Mary Ellen Stubb.
"Legend has it that she put that in her will to have it that way so she could wave to her boys, her railroad boys, as they went by," Stubb explains.
Stubb likely knows more than anyone else about the lives and deaths of those who lie in the cemetery's soil. Since hired as the sexton in 2003, she's dedicated herself to bringing the burial grounds into the modern age. The act of uploading information into a city database has led her to become enamored with the endless stories documented in frayed red ledgers and yellowed burial permits collected throughout the decades.
"It was during that process, when you're actually looking at each individual person's records, that things started jumping out at us—the histories, the idea that, wow, everyone has a story, everyone has a history," Stubb says. "Some of them are good. Some of them are not so good. Some of them are warm and fuzzy. And some of them are kind of creepy."
This flat patch of land northwest of downtown Missoula serves as the final resting place for 21,000 people. Each of them surely faced some level of struggle, triumph and loss—universal flavors of the human experience—and those stories have converged at the 80-acre municipal cemetery for more than 12 decades. As Stubb and her colleagues tell it, the bits of information mined from those frayed ledgers provide as much insight into what Missoula was, is and could be as anything.
More recently, cemetery staffers are willing to tell that full story. In the past, they mostly focused on sharing the accomplishments of Missoula's founders and the uplifting side of Missoula's history. But Stubb and Doug Waters, the cemetery director since 1999, now say the complete picture deserves attention—"whether it's comfortable," Stubb says, "or whether it's not comfortable."
"Every stone has a story," Waters adds. "The more you get into understanding the stories, the more you understand the history of Missoula."
Prior to the turn of the 20th century, landowners usually buried their dead on private property. Travelers were simply buried alongside the wagon trial and laborers building the Northern Pacific Railroad frequently earned a grave trackside. But when the Missoula cemetery was established in 1884, things changed.
"As Missoula began growing, the effort was: Stop the individual home-grown burials, and let's make a regular public cemetery where everyone would be recorded and everyone would have a place to go," Stubb says. "And as Missoula kept expanding they needed that room."
And they certainly did need the room. Over the years, burial grounds had cropped up around Missoula. For instance, Prescott School at the base of Mount Jumbo was erected on top of a burial ground used by Chinese laborers.
Once all of those sites were dug up and moved to the cemetery, or simply built upon, Missoula's dead increasingly ended up at the plot of land near the railroad tracks. And then the records began to pile up. The information was often inconsistent or illegible—but it was there, and Stubb now has her hands full documenting who, exactly, is buried on the grounds.
"I have to tell you, when I first walked in the door I wondered what I had gotten myself into," she says looking around the cemetery office, once cluttered with burial permits, maps, deeds and ownership papers. "It was a bit overwhelming at first."
The third generation Montana native says once she started reading about who was buried where, she was hooked. Many of the biographies struck her as similar to that of her own grandfather, who emigrated from Sweden at age 17. Many other files simply held little discoveries about early Missoula, like the fact that "brain trouble" and alcoholism were the two primary causes of death in the cemetery's early years.
Specifically, Stubb spends her time cross-referencing a gravestone inventory conducted row-by-row with reams of paper unearthed in the old files. The work takes time. She's been at it for years, and says she's only halfway done. But it's worth it.
"That has led us to a number of people that we didn't even know were here," Stubb says. "As we stumble through, and, literally, stumble through these files we're learning more and more...It wasn't until last year that we realized that we had what the cemetery termed a 'colored lot.'"
Fewer than 30 people are buried in two sections used for African American interments between 1928 and 1937. The small patches sit near the center of the grounds.
Poor people had a specific spot in the cemetery, as well. Until about 1999, when Waters came on board, those buried with the help of Missoula County subsidies were segregated to the cemetery's farthest corner and another sparsely stoned area closer to the entrance. Those areas include few trees and only feature small, flat cement markers. Elaborate stones commemorating well-heeled locals dwarf the taxpayer-funded markers, which have in many places sunk completely into the earth.
"It just kind of gives you a sad flowing feel in that section," Stubb says.
Not far from the county burial section lies Missoula's only known serial killer, Wayne Nance. According to law enforcement, he murdered at least four people over the course of 12 years. Nance himself was killed by injuries he sustained during an attack on a coworker in 1986. The killer's father, George Nance, outlived his son by eight years. According to cemetery records, the elder Nance purchased Wayne's stone. It's engraved with the words, "Beloved Son."
Stubb and Waters only recently decided to publicly talk about Nance's legacy.
"That one was a stretch for us when we decided to tell that story," Stubb says. "Up until that point, the only stories that had been told here were Missoula founders C.P. Higgins and Emma Dickenson—just the warm and fuzzy stories, which were great. But as we began scouring these files it became apparent that there's far more to the people who are buried here than just those few founders. And every story was important, because every story has had an effect on Missoula."
Another story that falls into the darker category centers on the death of CIA operative Jerry Daniels. The Ovando native fought the communists during the Vietnam War. When the United States pulled out, he facilitated emigration of the American-allied Hmong to Missoula before reportedly being killed by a faulty water heater in his Thailand apartment in 1982.
The official account of Daniels' death didn't jibe for many. It didn't help that he was shipped home to the Missoula Municipal Cemetery in a hermetically sealed casket under U.S. State Department and CIA guard.
"Basically, the casket came back here to the United States in 1982 when he died with security guards and strict orders the casket was never to be opened," Stubb says. "The wonder has always been whether or not Jerry Daniels was really killed."
Stubb could recite stories like this for days on end. But when asked to reflect on which ones resonate most for her, she says it's those of 19th and 20th century pioneers, many of them immigrants like her grandfather simply struggling to make their way in the West.
"They came here with nothing," she says. "And they were looking for that fortune. And so many of them didn't find it. But the impact they had in the general area, and the lifestyles they left in order to make things better for their families, those are all very heartwarming stories."
As Stubb makes headway through decades of documentation—records are now available at the click of a mouse at www.ci.missoula.mt.us—she's increasingly equipped to assist the grandchildren of those original trailblazers, people like herself, who, in seeking a connection to their past, learn more about themselves.
"They're looking for answers," Stubb says. "It's like they're piecing together these puzzles of their families."
Doug Waters waves his hand over the newly developed portion of the cemetery and rattles off a list of names. "The Mings used to have a restaurant here," he says. "Jensens, they're the contractors, or over there is a veterinarian..."
Having lived in Missoula on and off since 1964, the 57-year-old cemetery director has deep roots in the community. "It's kind of freaky out here—I have a lot of friends buried out here," he says.
Waters, who has a degree in landscape architecture, is charged with overseeing the cemetery's ongoing expansion, which is based on a master plan drawn up in 1964. Of the property's 80 available acres, 40 have yet to be developed. While Stubb consumes herself with the cemetery's past, Waters remains firmly focused on the future, and implementing that master plan.
The slim, thoughtful man speaks openly about grieving for friends, neighbors and loved ones laid to rest where he works, but he also finds comfort in the cemetery's enduring predictability.
"You have to plan cemeteries in thousands and thousands of years, because they're permanent," he says. "They're there forever. I think that's what I also liked about cemeteries—they're planned for permanency."
Waters acknowledges the irony in embracing permanency in a place tied to human mortality. But he points to the gravestones as an example of the cemetery's lasting importance.
"When you get right down to it, unless you're really, really wealthy and you get to build skyscrapers or have bridges named after you, about all you have left is a stone with your name on it," he says.
Missoula's gravestones run the gamut, from small, temporary cement slabs, which often stick around for decades, to a massive block of hand-cut India granite that stands about five feet tall and, according to Waters, likely costs in the neighborhood of $65,000.
Somewhere between those two extremes sits the boulder gravestone belonging to architect A.J. Gibson. Gibson's emphasis on building with stone and brick rather than wood, which is vulnerable to fires and erosion, helped reshape Missoula's landscape. With his emphasis on longevity, Gibson helped brand the growing community a permanent social and commercial hub.
Gibson and his wife, Maud Lockley, died when a train hit their car on New Year's Eve in 1927. He was 65. Speaking perhaps to his love of design, Gibson's headstone quotes the song "America": "I love thy rocks and rills, thy woods and templed hills..."
Final words like Gibson's fill the cemetery. For instance, there's the suicide note a family had engraved in white lettering on a 14-year-old girl's marker. The final note was taken from a poem originally penned by an anonymous author. "I turned my back and left it all...," it reads. "Tasks left undone must stay that way, I've found that peace at the end of the day."
Walking from the young girl's stone, Waters points to another thing that fills the cemetery: pennies. Tradition holds that a penny left graveside signals the deceased was visited and therefore held in high esteem. Waters says there's one stone down the way that's had the same penny on it for eight years.
Waters pulls his jacket tighter against the late winter breeze and talks about lessons to be learned at the cemetery. After all, it's tough not to grow watching grieving neighbors grapple with loss.
"I think that people just don't appreciate life enough," he says. "People are too stressed. They're always doing stuff to other people. Families are doing stuff to each other. And when it's all taken away from you, you realize all the stuff you shouldn't have done or maybe you should have done. You get to start to be more sympathetic, more understanding, more compassionate and really start to understand the true meaning of helping people, especially through hard times."
With a yellow measuring tape, two groundskeepers in baggy blue work pants mark the spot, then slice a niche through grass with a shovel. There's only a foot between graves in many places, so there's not much room for error when digging a grave.
Today the groundskeepers are burying cremains, or the ashes of someone recently cremated. The cremains fill a small pine box wrapped in a green velvet bag. The men place the package into a white "poly vault" that looks like a cooler and acts as protection from the elements. There's no family here on this mid-March day. The woman goes into the ground alone.
"I don't know if she has any family," says Ron Regan, the cemetery's maintenance manager. "We don't get into the history too much out here. We're the gravediggers."
For the past 10 years, Regan, a 51-year-old Missoula native, has overseen the facility's grounds-keeping operation. The job involves ensuring burials and funerals go smoothly, keeping the lawn up to snuff and being a professional empath of sorts. He thinks less of the cemetery's past or future, and stays focused on the day-to-day responsibilities.
The biggest worry for Regan—and a universal fear among gravediggers, he says—involves the possibility that someone could be buried in the wrong place.
"We double check that three times before we even dig. That's a big one, because if that ever happened it would be a bad scenario," he says. "Don't ever think it can't happen. In cemeteries around the world it's happened."
There's never been a mix-up like that under his watch, Regan says. Although, there was some confusion years ago surrounding where to inter a woman who had remarried her brother-in-law.
"When the family got out there, it was wrong," he says. "They didn't want her buried next to their uncle. They wanted her buried next to dad."
Regan handled the mix-up before the woman went into the ground. Situations like that highlight the surprising complexities of a gravedigger's job.
"You have to be able to read these people," Regan says. "How many times do you go to the hospital and visit a friend and say, 'How are you feeling?' You know, 'How do you think I'm feeling? I'm here'...[You] ain't doing well, usually, if you're at the cemetery."
Graves present hazards, too. As coffins decompose, dirt sinks into them, creating soft patches of land. On the surface, though, the grass remains tout. The result leaves an invisible void, which amounts to a booby trap—more humorous than dangerous—that someone can step into, and then fall.
"You just hope somebody don't come out and grab you," Regan quips. "It just kind of gets to you a little bit."
Regan and his crew fill between 200 and 300 sunken graves a year. It's one of the chores they juggle in a constant effort to stay on top of the workload. Other days, especially as the ground thaws and lilac trees lining the cemetery perimeter bud, the groundskeepers groom the entire expanse. Spring is the busiest time of year, and traffic peaks during Memorial Day Weekend, when about 1,000 cars roll daily through the cemetery's gates.
As part of the cemetery's spring cleaning, Regan tags trinkets left graveside—teddy bears, birthday cards, Christmas wreathes, tequila, Copenhagen and Schmidt beer. Many of the nicer gifts are kept and stored for one year as a courtesy provided by cemetery staff.
The hardest gifts for Regan and his crew to pick up are the ones left in the infant's cemetery. On a recent morning, three deflated balloons hang from a blue spruce not far from a round canister containing a hand-written note and tiny Christmas stocking. The canister, painted with angels, sits beside a copper-colored stone belonging to a child who died the same day it was born.
"This is the section that none of us like to come to," Regan says, clearing leaves from the infant's marker. "A lot of us gravediggers don't talk about it. There's emotions out here."
Families sometimes hang out graveside. Cemetery regulars—often white-haired ladies and stooped-over men—come alone to stand silently under aspen trees. Workers from nearby businesses like the Roseburg Mill and Allied Waste walk among cracked stones during lunch breaks. And since the roads were paved in 2004—another modern upgrade—savvy recreationists take advantage of low-traffic cemetery streets.
"We have people who come out here and roller blade," Regan says.
Regan finally broke down and bought a "niche" in a massive granite wall that looks out onto the old part of the cemetery last year. His cremated remains will be stored there, along with more than 100 others. It's not far from where his grandparents are buried and across from a fountain that's still thawing in the spring sun. Called a columbarium, Regan and his team built the wall in 2002.
If one shares a double niche, as spouses often do, columbarium expenses run about $400 per person. It's easy to see the financial incentive when compared to a traditional burial, which sets one back about $1,100, Regan says.
"It's very practical," he says. "The cost of funerals these days and everything, that is the best price."
Assuming a matter-of-fact demeanor, the maintenance manager points to his niche in the top right corner of the columbarium and lists who goes where.
"This is where I go," he says. "This is my mother-in-law. This is my nephew. My father-in-law is in here, too. I still have room to put someone in there if I ever had to use it. If not, I'm good with that. I really don't want to use it."
Regan not only earns his paycheck here, he'll spend eternity here. But he shrugs off the thought. Death is pretty simple to him.
"It's a fact of life...," he says. "I always say, you have a number on your ass, you just can't see it."
Waters also has a burial site picked out at the cemetery. Working next to where he'll be laid to rest hasn't made thinking about death any easier. He still worries about leaving everyone behind.
"The difficulty is thinking about leaving the loved ones," he says. "And, after you're gone, all of the issues they'll have not having you there."
As for Stubb, she'll be interred here, too. She's not sure yet if she will be buried or cremated, but she knows she'll rest on the same grounds as her grandfather. That means Stubb's not only helping to preserve the cemetery's story, and it's significance to Missoula, but she's also a part of it.