Cemetery Life 

For those who work at the municipal graveyard, the story of our city lies six feet underground.

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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."

click to enlarge Since joining the cemetery staff as sexton in 2003, Mary Ellen Stubb has become increasingly enamored of the stories collected here. “Some of them are good,” says Stubb. “Some of them are not so good. Some of them are warm and fuzzy. And some of them are kind of creepy.” - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Since joining the cemetery staff as sexton in 2003, Mary Ellen Stubb has become increasingly enamored of the stories collected here. “Some of them are good,” says Stubb. “Some of them are not so good. Some of them are warm and fuzzy. And some of them are kind of creepy.”

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.

click to enlarge It takes two men about four hours to dig a grave, according to Ron Regan, the cemetery’s maintenance manager for the past 10 years. “We don’t get into the history too much out here,” he says. “We’re the gravediggers.” - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • It takes two men about four hours to dig a grave, according to Ron Regan, the cemetery’s maintenance manager for the past 10 years. “We don’t get into the history too much out here,” he says. “We’re the gravediggers.”

"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.

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