Irma Burgess and Bellefontaine Lawn Parties

While some people today might find it a bit morbid, at the height of the rural cemetery movement in the 19th century, it wasn’t unusual for the living to visit graveyards for recreational reasons. Common activities included picnicking at the grave of a loved one and peacefully strolling the grounds in admiration of the pastoral landscape and elaborate Victorian age graveyard architecture. The solitude of the cemetery provided many a retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city and an opportunity to reflect on life and death. 

I was pleasantly surprised when I ran across this article from the August 3, 1913 issue of The Washington Herald about one lady’s efforts to carry on the celebration of the cemetery as a place for the living as well as the dead at St. Louis’ Bellefontaine Cemetery.

Irma Graydon Burgess had spent most of her life in the cemetery so it made sense that she was at the center of St. Louis’ graveyard party trend. Irma’s father, Walter Graydon, was Bellefontaine’s superintendent and due to that position, lived on the grounds with his wife and seven children.

As a child, Irma was taught to be skeptical about ghosts and wasn’t afraid of living in the cemetery because as her mother said, “There is less to be afraid of here among the dead than among the living downtown.” (I’ve said the same thing to people on many occasions when asked about my own fears of haunting cemeteries.) Irma and her siblings scoffed at other children growing up who believed in the supernatural, but as an adult she insisted that if spirits still roamed the realm of the living, they would gravitate towards their old homes instead of lurk about in the graveyard.

Irma’s habitation at Bellefontaine didn’t end with her childhood. She married Francis Burgess, the assistant superintendent at the cemetery. She welcomed church groups who wanted to hold picnics and society events on the grounds and as a member of a Christian Endeavor group, was responsible for at least one such successful lawn party.

These parties, described as “the very newest North Side social thrill” often took place in the evening, with the cemetery lit by Japanese lanterns and picnic lamps. Young people happily took part in games and music amidst the dimly lit headstones and monuments, a sight to which those living around the cemetery had become familiarized but which puzzled outsiders.

A century later, Irma is still on Bellefontaine’s grounds, buried there after her death in 1958 near other members of the Burgess family. She would probably be pleased to know that her cemetery isn’t one that fell victim to neglect and that visitors still take pleasure in its peaceful beauty.

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