Feature Story

Look Before You Leap: Visiting Cemeteries in Unfamiliar Cities

When work or pleasure takes me away from the Green Mountain State, I make a point of visiting local cemeteries in different parts of the country. I have had a number of enjoyable experiences visiting cemeteries in cities and towns across New England, the Mid-Atlantic States, the Midwest, the Southeast, and the Southwest. Over time, I have learned that frequent cemetery visitors like myself need to be aware of their surroundings when visiting unfamiliar, out of state graveyards, particularly when they are older cemeteries located in inner-cities.

When visiting St Louis, I decided to take a trip over to Bellefontaine Cemetery, whose architectural splendor and numerous notable graves I had read about several years earlier. I located Bellefontaine on a map and headed for the North St. Louis location without looking into the surrounding neighborhood, asking any of the locals about the area, or surfing the web to learn more about the cemetery. When I got off the highway at the appropriate exit for Bellefontaine, I found myself in the middle of a decrepit, obviously dangerous urban neighborhood. I proceeded to the cemetery and found it guarded by two armed-security officers who interrogated me before allowing me through the gates. They told me it was rare for people to show up by themselves at the cemetery due to the neighborhood’s reputation for violent crime. They told me that the area surrounding Bellefontaine was one of the highest crime areas in the city, a city that I later learned consistently ranks among the nation’s leaders in violent crimes.

Large funeral parties for local dignitaries are the primary legitimate traffic at Bellefontaine, which has long been the graveyard of choice for the city’s luminaries. The cemetery’s still lofty status in the St Louis area makes sense. Bellefontaine remains a beautiful cemetery. It has striking mausoleums honoring the likes of the Busch brewing family, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and entrepreneur Ellis Wainwright, whose tomb was designed by Prairie School architect Louis Sullivan, “the father of the skyscraper.” Despite its interior beauty, the surroundings of Bellefontaine have long been treacherous. Armed guards protect Bellefontaine from the gang activity in the surrounding neighborhood that in the past has invaded the cemetery.

Bellefontaine is not the only older, inner-city cemetery to have suffered this fate. New Orleans’ famous St. Louis Cemeteries have long been plagued by crime. Tourist guides to the city recommend that visitors book guided tours to the cemetery rather than exploring it themselves. Over the years, far too many visitors to St Louis Cemetery have been the victims of armed robberies and assaults. Last September, an elderly couple visiting deceased loved ones in a Newark, New Jersey cemetery were beaten, slashed, and robbed by a pair of assailants in broad daylight on a sunny, Sunday afternoon. Recent high profile assaults and robberies at urban cemeteries have taken place in Hartford, Connecticut, Natick, Massachusetts, and Montclair, New Jersey.

Visiting cemeteries in unfamiliar locations can be an enjoyable and unique tourist experience. Do the research before you go though. If you know anyone from the area, consult the locals. Don’t be afraid to contact local police departments to ask about the safety of a particular area in a city. Moreover, in the age of the internet, information about the area surrounding a cemetery is readily available. A few minutes of research can keep you and the people you care about safe when visiting cemeteries in unfamiliar cities.

Nota Bene