Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum in St. Louis is a great place to take a walk.

Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum Is a Wellspring of St. Louis Stories

Friday September 30, 2022

By Rachel Huffman

A diverse array of mature trees whose pigments ignite in the fall. Babbling streams and pristine lakes surrounded by spectacular plant life. Swarms of bees and butterflies – plus, the occasional red fox or turkey. Headstones, monuments and mausoleums marking the final resting places of historical figures who shaped the St. Louis community and contributed significantly to the advancement of the nation.

This is Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum.

Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum encompasses a wealth of St. Louis history.
Photo courtesy of Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum

With more than 170 years of history, Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum is not only a tranquil burial site; it’s also a beloved local landmark and a shining example of environmental stewardship. Recently, Arbnet, an interactive community of arboreta that supports the common purposes and interests of tree-focused public gardens, accredited it as a Level III Arboretum. Arbnet created its Arboretum Accreditation Program to establish and share a widely recognized set of industry standards for the purpose of unifying the arboretum community.

What exactly does it mean to be an accredited Level III Arboretum?

“First, you have to understand what it means to be an arboretum,” Sherry Smith, president and CEO of Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum, explains. “I tell people to think of it like a tree museum. Our purpose is to conserve trees – like you would an artifact – to support native species and to educate people about the importance of trees and other woody plants. It’s a concerted effort to strategically plant and cultivate trees to minimize our ecological footprint and maximize our positive impact on our neighborhood and our city.

“Then, to become accredited, it takes a lot of work,” she continues with a laugh. “Arbnet has a very stringent policy: To become a Level III Arboretum, you need a dedicated arboretum director, at least 500 distinct species of trees, which must be cataloged, and educational opportunities for the community. In addition, you have to participate in research studies and collaborate with other institutions that aim to accomplish the same goals.”

To date, the Level III Arboretum distinction has been awarded to only 44 organizations worldwide.

“We’re located in a challenging part of St. Louis – I don’t think that’s a secret,” Smith says. “But consider what’s happening in North County: The Saint Louis Zoo and NGA [National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency] are investing in the area. For us to be located here, as well, and to be one of 44 accredited Level III Arboreta, it’s wonderful for the community, and it’s a remarkable distinction for St. Louis.”

A grave marker shows a red fox.
Photo by Rachel Huffman

Founded in 1849 and perched on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, the historic cemetery consists of 314 acres, including 87,000 interments. American explorer William Clark and co-founder of Anheuser-Busch Adolphus Busch are among the most notable people buried here. You can spot surnames that identify St. Louis buildings and parks, as well, including Barnes, Bixby, McMillan, Shaw and Wainwright.

Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum also spotlights women in history, both on the grounds and online. Learn about Florence Wyman Richardson, one of the early workers for the St. Louis Symphony Society and the first president of the St. Louis Equal Suffrage League; Mary Meachum, an American abolitionist who dedicated her life to educating and freeing enslaved people – don’t miss the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing mural on the St. Louis Riverfront Trail – Gerty Cori, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who was also featured on a postage stamp; and Florence Hayward, a successful writer best-known for her Travel Letters and the only woman with a position on the Board of Commissioners of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, among others.

Today, the cemetery encompasses more than 9,500 trees, representing 560 species, and in 2012, it received its first accreditation as a Level II Arboretum from Arbnet. Imposing white oaks, bald cypresses with their lacy needles and tulip poplars whose verdant leaves resemble tulip flowers in profile are all native to Missouri. As the cemetery and arboretum hopes to expand your knowledge of the country’s manifold plant life, there are also non-native species, including bigleaf magnolias with leaves that grow up to 30 inches long and paperbark maples with slender, upright branching and shaggy bark that ranges from copper orange to reddish-brown in color.

“We have dogwoods galore, and if Mother Nature is on our side, they bloom at the same time as the redbuds,” Smith says. “It is an absolutely stunning sight. We also have a rare tree called stinking cedar. I love it because, although it’s not native to Missouri, it’s doing well in our cemetery – I also just love the name.”

Meanwhile, in spring, approximately 300,000 daffodils burst from the earth, and tulips bloom shortly after them. Irises eventually take their place, and the cycle continues. The grounds crew doesn’t chemically treat the lawn, so you can also spot wild violets and wild strawberries. Visually, it’s relentless eye candy, full of colors and textures. In summer, everything turns brilliant green, and then in fall, the leaves put on their own show. Even in winter, there’s something captivating about the bare trees and a dusting of snow on a carved angel monument.

“I wouldn’t try to wait for a certain season to visit,” Smith says. “You’re going to see a different image of Bellefontaine with each and every season, and none of them disappoint.”

A fresh coat of snow covers a monument at Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum.
Photo courtesy of Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum

“We’re a significant land mass in the city,” Smith says, “and when we were creating our 100-year master plan, we focused on how we could develop our grounds to maximize our resources. We already had a strong sense of tree conservation, but we wanted to meet the criteria for an accredited arboretum, which would be a wonderful distinction for the cemetery.

“First and foremost, we are an active cemetery,” she continues, “but we are also part of the St. Louis Green Business Challenge, so we continually study and refine our green practices. We also keep bees, and we will continue to diversify our tree collection and continue to participate in research and seed collection to the extent of our abilities. Fundamentally, it’s about keeping the cemetery alive, if you will.”

Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum collaborates with the Missouri Botanical Garden to increase the health and diversity of its species. “On an annual basis, our horticulturists – we have four – and their horticulturists go on collection trips, where they travel to certain parts of the U.S. and bring back seeds and seedlings of rare and endangered plant species so that we can help nurture and protect them,” Smith says.

Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum is also working with the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Missouri History Museum to build an interpretive walking trail through the wild, wooded area across from William Clark’s monument. Along the trail, visitors will encounter some of the species that the Lewis and Clark Expedition discovered after departing from St. Louis on May 14, 1804.

“Isn’t that a fun project?” Smith says. “Who would think of that being in a cemetery?”

A father's headstone shows a bundle of wheat.
Photo by Rachel Huffman

Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum encourages anyone and everyone to visit. Throughout the year, it hosts more than 300 events, covering a range of topics from history to horticulture. Take a self-guided tour or check out one of the themed tours, such as Sips, Souls and Strolls, a guided walk that spotlights the various architectural styles represented throughout the cemetery and architects who touched the St. Louis landscape, and Cemetery Symbolism at Bellefontaine, a presentation on the host of iconography throughout the cemetery that helps to tell the story of the people buried there. The design of a headstone, monument or mausoleum can indicate a person’s background, religion, ethnicity, culture, occupation and social status as well as the person’s pleasures, sorrows and hopes for the afterlife.

“Every journey that you take through Bellefontaine reveals something new,” Smith says. “And if you take one of our tours, you’ll learn something new, too. We’re always uncovering new pieces of history, and we get to share that information with residents and visitors alike in tours and events so that they can better understand how St. Louis culture evolved.”

Do you think it’s strange to have an event, a party or even a picnic in a cemetery? “From a historical perspective, it’s not,” Smith explains. “Originally, people tended to their loved ones’ gravesites. They pulled weeds; they planted flowers. They would visit with their children – and picnic baskets – in tow. They would bring games for the kids to play, and they would spend sufficient time here. As a society, we don’t do that anymore, but it was part of the culture then. So, what we do at Bellefontaine isn’t terribly different from the original intent of the cemetery.”

By creating a peaceful, picturesque place for people to gather, Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum encourages us to remember our loved ones, keep their stories alive and learn about the past by studying the stories of others.