Curious Louis: Why are there so many cemeteries on St. Charles Rock Road?
A few years ago, Betty Zweifel Eberley started tracing her family's history.
"I can't go back any further than 1816, my dad's great-grandfather," she told St. Louis Public Radio. "They came from Germany. I don't have a lot of stories to tell, but I have a lot of the pertinent information."
That included things like dates of birth and death, and where her relatives were buried. And as she began digging, Eberley noticed something she had missed growing up in the footprint of the Normandy School District — there are a lot of cemeteries in the area.
"And I thought to myself, I wonder how come there were so many?" she said. So she submitted the question to Curious Louis.
Location, location, location
"All over the city, you have rings of cemeteries," said Andrew Weil, executive director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis. "And those cemeteries correspond directly to where the city limits were."
Weil would know — as a historical archeologist, he's been involved with several cemetery digs.
So why did they move? By law, they had to.
One of the first ordinances approved by the St. Louis Board of Aldermen after incorporation in 1823 was a ban on burials in the city limits. Anyone who dug a grave could be fined $25. Someone who ordered a grave to be dug faced a $50 fine. Those who knowingly allowed a grave to be dug, or who buried their dead, faced the same $50 fine.
Similar legislation passed in 1843 and 1879.
"People associated cemeteries and decay, essentially, with disease transmission." Weil said. "The other thing was just development pressure. The city was growing so rapidly that having large expanses of open ground that couldn't be used for anything in the dense core was considered a poor land use. They would move, or pretend to move, cemeteries farther out, and they used roads that left the city."
St. Charles Rock Road has existed in some form since the 1700s, Weil said, and later became a streetcar line. A similar cluster of cemeteries exists along Gravois for roughly the same reasons.
Founded in 1855, St. Peter's was the burial ground for a German Evangelical congregation of the same name. It is the oldest of the eight, and the only one that was originally located in the city limits, at Utah and Lemp near Cherokee.
The burial ground for the Bethania church, another German Evangelical congregation, accepted its first interment in 1870. It's been considered a section of St. Peter's since 1988.
Betty Eberley has a great-grandmother buried in Bethany.
Greenwood Cemetery was established in 1874 by Herman Krueger, who resigned his position as the superintendent of St. Peter's Cemetery to do so. It was one of three commercial cemeteries for African Americans in St. Louis. Harriet Scott, the wife of Dred Scott, is interred here.
Zion Church, another German Evangelical congregation with roots in the city, established its burial ground in 1883.
"If you were a church member in good standing, then you should have your last things prepared, so that your family doesn’t have to deal with it when the time comes," said Scott Holl, the archivist at Eden Seminary. "Part of that was making sure you have a will and making sure you have a cemetery plot.”
Betty Eberley's mother-in-law is buried here.
Valhalla was the first of a series of burial grounds that opened in the early 1900s as part of the commercial cemetery movement. In addition to having a new business model, said historian Ann Morris, the cemeteries were much different architecturally from the old church burial grounds.
"People in the '20s used cemeteries like parks," Morris said. "They’d come out for a picnic. Some of the cemeteries even had activities."
Valhalla accepted its first body in 1911. Three U.S. congressmen are buried here, as are relatives of Betty Eberley.
Lake Charles opened in 1922. Betty Eberley's mother is buried here, as is the singer and composer Donny Hathaway.
Laurel Hill also opened in 1922. It is the final resting place of Jamyla Bolden, a 9-year-old girl shot and killed in Ferguson in August 2015.
Founded in 1928, Oak Grove is the final resting place for Betty Eberley's father-in-law. Former St. Louis mayor Henry Kiel is also buried here, as is former Missouri Gov. Henry Caulfield.
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