The Life of the Afterlife in the Big Sky State: A History of Montana’s Cemeteries (U Nebraska Press, 2021) is a groundbreaking history of death in Montana. It offers a unique, reflective, and sensitive perspective on the evolution of customs and burial grounds. Beginning with Montana’s first known burial site, Ellen Baumler considers the archaeological records of early interments in rock ledges, under cairns, in trees, and on open-air scaffolds.
Contact with Europeans at trading posts and missions brought new burial practices. Later, crude “boot hills” and pioneer graveyards evolved into orderly cemeteries. Planned cemeteries became the hallmark of civilization and the measure of an educated community. Baumler explores this history, yet untold about Montana. She traces the pathway from primitive beginnings to park-like, architecturally planned burial grounds where people could recreate, educate their children, and honor the dead.
The Life of the Afterlife in the Big Sky State is not a comprehensive listing of the many hundreds of cemeteries across Montana. Rather it discusses cultural identity evidenced through burial practices, changing methods of interments and why those came about, and the evolution of cemeteries as the “last great necessity” in organized communities. Through examples and anecdotes, the book examines how we remember those who have passed on.
Dr. Ellen Baumler was was the interpretive historian at the Montana Historical Society from 1992 until her retirement in 2018. She is the author or editor of numerous books, including Girl from the Gulches: The Story of Mary Ronan and Dark Spaces: Montana’s Historic Penitentiary at Deer Lodge. Baumler won Montana’s Governor’s Award for the Humanities and the Peter Yegen Jr. Award from the Montana Association of Museums for excellence and distinction in fostering the advancement of Montana’s museums.
Troy A. Hallsell, PhD is the 341st Missile Wing Historian at Malmstrom AFB. The ideas expressed in this podcast do not represent the 341st Missile Wing, United States Air Force, or the Department of Defense.
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