Included in the January 15, 1895 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is an article mentioning the increase in numbers ice skaters frequenting the frozen ponds of St. Louis’s Bellefontaine Cemetery. At night.
This time of year, thanks to television commercials and overly enthusiastic neighbors who insist on placing plastic headstones in their lawns to add a little holiday ambiance, we all become a little haunted by the shadow of death. Or at least I do.
I don’t much fear death, and I might even associate it with ice skating, but I’m still not sure I’d be willing to engage in such a lighthearted activity in a cemetery. And definitely not at night.
Of course, the skaters of 1895 showed up after dark because at the time ice skating was specifically not allowed in the cemetery. By 1909, Bellefontaine had placed additional restrictions on dogs, fishing, and bicycles. Because apparently a lot of people wanted to hang out there.
I suppose it makes a little bit of sense. The cemetery opened in May of 1850, only about twenty years after the first “rural cemetery” in the nation was established outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Prior to the development of cemeteries outside of major cities, Americans buried their loved ones primarily in church graveyards that had become dangerously overcrowded and unsanitary as city populations boomed.
Like most of these large rural cemeteries, Bellefontaine was designed as a park, with great attention to beautiful architecture, winding paths, and gorgeous landscaping. It was designed to be a place where mourners could reflect on the lives and deaths of loved ones in peace and quiet. It was also a place one could have a nice picturesque afternoon picnic.
Because at the time there weren’t public parks like we have now, nor were there botanical gardens or art museums available to just any person who wanted to enjoy them. Cemeteries like Bellefontaine filled that need. And sometimes the ponds froze over and people went ice skating.
As city populations continued to grow and park systems grew with them, the role of the large rural cemetery became less public skating rink and more city of the dead. For a time, then, these really beautiful and well tended pieces of land gained a tinge of darkness and dread. They were the places where grieving people gathered for graveside services and solemn remembrances, which is probably why I can’t imagine ice skating in one.
And they’re still that. But recently, while letterboxing with friends, I found myself visiting Bellefontaine for the first time, and you know, it’s really a beautiful place that I could see hanging out in for a while. It was even voted the city’s 2018 second-best hidden gem by the readers of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Today, no longer so much outside the city as well within it, Bellefontaine is a sprawling 314 acres with fourteen miles of curved roads and more than 87,000 internments, many of them people who once helped shape not only St. Louis, but much of nineteenth century America. Tours are offered regularly, and even include an annual beer barons tour (because St. Louis has had a few of those) complete with plenty local beer samples.
If you’re not too frightened by the tales of ghost sightings and the general creepiness of 87,000 dead people in one place, the ornate mausoleums and memorial statuary are worth a gander, and the stories are fascinating. Today you can feel free to bring your bicycle and your dog, but if you want to fish or ice skate, St Louis might have better options.