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A giant, a mummy and the first cremation: some unusual final resting places in St. Louis

A giant, a mummy and the first cremation: some unusual final resting places in St. Louis
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Ashes made history along Sublette Avenue in south St. Louis.

Elizabeth Todd Terry, 44, was the first person to be cremated in St. Louis, on May 6, 1888, garnering front-page headlines.

“Complete And Perfect Incineration Accomplished in Three Hours,” said a subheadline. “No Smoke, No Odor, No Objectionable Features.”

The Missouri Crematory was the first crematory built west of the Mississippi River, the first columbarium in the United States. It’s still there, operating as Valhalla’s Hillcrest Abbey. The folks there don't do cremations anymore, but they do at their crematory and cemetery at 7600 St. Charles Rock Road. They still inter cremains and bodies at the columbarium and mausoleum.

Still, the complex at 3200 Sublette Avenue is oddly beautiful, easy to miss in the shadows of the looming domed main building of the St. Louis Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center, the more subtle neighboring South City Family YMCA or the south patrol building of the St. Louis police.

Still, once you see it, you crane your neck to look. And if you’re so inclined, you can get out and wander around.

There’s the Doric, red brick building with “Missouri Crematory” above the doorway — there have been more than 20,000 cremations here, and the upstairs part once served as a chapel and columbarium, but is no longer in use.

The neighboring, yellow brick building with “Columbarium” above its doorway includes a curved wooden staircase leading to a basement with hundreds of recesses for ashes. A separate garden mausoleum attached to a chapel mausoleum, built in the late 1960s, still hosts services.

“We’ve had people come by with their dogs, and they see me and say, ‘Oh, you’re open?’” said Steve DuLany, the manager of the abbey, whose crematory basement office sits next to the room housing the two old ovens. “The grass doesn’t cut itself.” A "no smoking please" sign sits on his desk. 

There’s also a cemetery with flat stones, as well as a jumble of nine headstones in front of the buildings facing different directions. DuLany does not know why. According to old pictures showing wooden cross markers, he believes dozens more are buried in the lawn.

The complex has no affiliation with the mental hospital or the state — in fact, it changed its name from Missouri Crematory to Hillcrest Abbey around 1919 in an attempt to clear up misconceptions.

Frank James of the Jesse James gang was cremated here, and Paul Tietjens is still here–he wrote the music for the 1902 stage production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Two congressmen, Edward Kehr and Carman Newcomb, are here, as well as singer Walter Scott, who was murdered in 1983 and whose body was found in a cistern a few years later. His elderly mother still visits.

Terry, the first person to be cremated in St. Louis, got that distinction because her father, Albert Todd, was one of the earliest supporters of cremations in the west. He died before the crematory was completed, so he was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery. That’s ultimately where Terry’s ashes were interred, next to her father.

The Todd family’s final resting spot isn’t the only unusual gravesite in the area or at Bellefontaine Cemetery. Take an otherworldly tour to some of the area’s more unexpected final resting places.

7 more unusual grave sites in the St. Louis area 

First Crematory in St. Louis

The first crematory in St. Louis, from a May 8, 1888 issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The first cremation in St. Louis

An article from the May 7, 1888 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the first cremation in St. Louis. The crematory still stands today as part of Hillcrest Abbey.

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