Death Becomes Them 

Exploring the solemnity and beauty of Boise's cemeteries

Unless you're the one in the hole, a cemetery can be a cool place to visit. Somber quiet, beautiful vistas, deep and profound thoughts of life, the nature of grief, the brevity of human existence and the certainty of death; a cemetery is the working definition of the phrase "at rest." Stand before a grave and the contrast between the living and dead is held in that stillness and the frank message of the marker. Each marker is a testimony to remembrances of loved ones—and also a reassurance that a life lived mattered to someone on this side of the grass.

Cemeteries as we know them in America didn't start being established until about the 1830s. Family plots, municipal burial grounds and church graveyards held our dead. But as towns grew the need to both memorialize and separate the dead from the living became necessary. Into the 20th century, cemeteries began to be called "memorial lawns" or "parks." A euphemistic distancing from the starker realities of death that cemeteries represented, memorial park cemeteries tend to be more park-like, with ponds, purposeful landscaping and few—if any—upright markers. It should be noted most people in today's hyper-industrialized society will venture to a cemetery for just two reasons: to go to someone else's funeral, or their own.

The practicality of a cemetery as a place to hold and memorialize the dead, though, is counterbalanced by the beauty and tranquility one can find there. The adage that dead men tell no tales stops at the cemetery gate, because a thoughtful walk through one conjures forth all kinds of tales.

While there are many places in this river valley where people have been buried—sometimes hastily, sometimes in large numbers, some marked and many more unmarked—there are six established cemeteries in Boise, each with its own important history, occupants and obscure curiosities.

click to enlarge KELSEY HAWES
  • Kelsey Hawes


Location: 1101 Mountain Cove Road


Founded: 1863, the same year the fort was established

Size: 1.2 acres

Number interred: 251

History: In the early afternoon, on a bright sunny day, you will hear three distinct sounds here: the intermittent clang of the pull chain against its flagpole as the American flag whips in the wind; the occasional, echoing volley of gunfire working up the gulch from the Boise Police Department firing range down the road; and the type of eerie silence only a hillside dotted with the tombs of American soldiers can offer. It is a profound quiet.

The original cemetery sat at the bottom of Cottonwood Creek—about one-half mile from its current location. Heavy flooding during the turn of the 20th century unearthed many of the graves, washing them into town and freaking out the citizens; so, in 1906, the Army disinterred the graves and moved them to the hill above Mountain Cove Road. The grounds were eventually donated to the city of Boise in 1947, along with the understanding that the cemetery be preserved as a historic site and kept in its natural condition.

The uniformity of the veterans' markers—most have a Union shield border with the name, rank and post of the interred—offer a chilling regiment to the accounting for the dead.

What to look for: The land here is pretty much the same as it was when these graves were moved in 1906. There is no irrigation and native grasses bend in the wind amid the headstones.

Space still available? Not really. The cemetery was established for Civil War veterans and their families and is now considered a historical landmark. A few graves were found nearby as recently as 1998 and interred in the cemetery. It's certainly possible—some think probable—that a few more unknown, unmarked casualties of that war are patiently waiting to be found and placed alongside their comrades.

How's the view? The view of the eastern Boise foothills with the pine tree-flecked mountains of the Boise Front in the background is lovely and sublime.

click to enlarge KELSEY HAWES
  • Kelsey Hawes


Location 317 N. Latah St.


Founded 1883

Size: 60 acres

Number interred/entombed: 32,373

History: When founded in 1883, Morris Hill was still pretty far outside of town—which was the norm for cemeteries at the time. Getting bodies up to its Bench location became considerably easier in the late 1880s, when the electric trolley system was installed and a kind of trolley car "hearse" carried caskets up to the cemetery.

Now situated squarely in the heart of the Boise Bench, Morris Hill holds the most interesting and eclectic interments.

Stunning in its variety of markers, with more than 50 sections, Morris Hill hosts politicians, paupers, assassins, business owners, and every ethnic and religious community that ever called Boise home.

The Saint John's section is devoted entirely to the burial of Boise's Catholics. There's an understandably huge Basque section, the Beth Israel Jewish section, three separate military sections, as well as the Ada County section—set aside for the indigent and the Japanese and Chinese communities. There's even a section devoted to Boise's deceased Gypsies.

What to look for: The walking tour available on Morris Hill's website serves as a valuable overview of the many famous people buried here. Some names are immediately recognizable. Famous Atlanta prostitute "Peg leg" Annie is here. The first Jewish governor in the United States, Moses Alexander, is buried in the Beth Israel section. Harry Orchard, who died in the Idaho State Pen at the age of 88 is here. It was Orchard who famously blew up former Governor Frank Steunenberg in Caldwell in 1905.

The "Lion of Idaho," Senator William E. Borah, is here. Newer dignitaries include business barons Joe Albertson and J.R. Simplot; and, in 2014, Paul Revere, "The Last Madman of Rock and Roll," was interred here. His marker bears a haunting photo of Revere in his requisite tricorner hat etched into the granite along with the words "He came. He rocked. He left."

click to enlarge KELSEY HAWES
  • Kelsey Hawes

Sen. Frank Church and James Jesus Angleton are both here, continuing their association together into the afterlife.

Angleton, head of counterintelligence for the Central Intelligence Agency, and Church shared the same congressional committee room in the mid-1970s, when the Church Committee took on the CIA and FBI in a governmental search to uncover illegal intelligence gathering.

Born in Boise in 1917, Angleton was undoubtedly one of the most shadowy figures in the CIA during the Cold War. His dossier is practically James Bondian in scope and content. Ferreting out global Communist threats, the Kennedy assassination and some of the more bizarre methods thought up to eliminate Fidel Castro in the early 1960s—including exploding cigars and poison-filled fountain pens—reveal a colorful, maybe a bit paranoid, master spy.

Church's committee members grilled Angleton and his CIA cronies on their numerous covert activities, and the two Idahoan government workers certainly shared a mutual animosity and distrust. At Morris Hill, though, Frank Church and James Angleton have finally found some common ground. Their graves are about 300 feet apart.

There is a funerary burner in the Chinese section. Mourners make tissue-paper representations of cars, boats, houses and other luxuries that are then burned. The smoke follows the soul of the dead so he or she can have riches in the afterlife.

The Morris Hill Mausoleum, completed in 1938, holds 384 above-ground crypts and more than 120 glass and brass niches for cremated remains.

There are about 110 victims of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 buried in Morris Hill. The disease tore through Southwest Idaho from late September 1918 to January 1919.

Space still available? Yes, there is still room for about 2,000 more interments.

How's the view? In the heart of the Bench, Morris Hill is an oasis of well-groomed grass and huge, old shade trees with a latticework of drivable paths that wind among the markers in its 50-plus sections. Wind and birdsong reduce the traffic noise on Latah and Emerald to a low hum.

click to enlarge KELSEY HAWES
  • Kelsey Hawes


Location: 460 E. Warm Springs Ave.


Founded: 1872

Size: 5 acres in five sections

Number interred: 1,806

History: Pioneer Cemetery was established, initially, as a result of erosion in the Boise Foothills. Flumes were built to stabilize and divert the constant flooding that had uncovered and carried away caskets from Fort Boise (Flume Street borders Pioneer to the east). The spot served as a municipal burial ground until 1872, when property owner John Krall sold 5 acres to the Boise Masonic Order and the Independent Order of the Odd Fellows, two local fraternal organizations that immediately began burying members and family there.

The Masonic Cemetery, as it was known then, was deeded to the city of Boise in 1920, which has retained ownership ever since. Pioneer serves as the final resting place for many of early Boise's most prominent citizens.

What to look for: Pioneer is a who's who of Boise city history. There is a walking tour available on the city's website, with nearly 40 stones to check out.

The monuments for 11 city mayors and four state governors are here. The first Boise chief of police and sheriff of Ada County, Orlando "Rube" Robbins, is buried here. Often called the "Wyatt Earp of Idaho," Robbins is credited with bringing law and order to Boise while it was still a wild, frontier town. Many of the earlier stones include Masonic and Odd fellows symbols. Look for the Masons' square and compass and the Odd fellows' three linked chains. Another fraternal order, the Woodmen of the World, is well represented here, too. The monuments may look like tree stumps or stacked logs. A benefit of being a Woodmen of the World member was your monument was free.

click to enlarge KELSEY HAWES
  • Kelsey Hawes

"White Bronze" zinc monuments abound here, and there are several in Morris Hill and a few in Dry Creek, as well. The Monument Bronze Company in Connecticut made these monuments from 1874-1914 (the zinc was redirected for the war effort during WWI, and the company never went back to making monuments after 1918).

Catalog and door-to-door salesman sold various castings—angels, urns, soldiers, animals—that were crafted at three subsidiary foundries and assembly plants back East, then sent to the Connecticut company to be welded together. Individualized plates with the deceased's information were bolted to the frame. The monuments are hollow, and withstand erosion and the wear and tear common to being exposed to the elements (as well as cemetery lawn sprinkler systems). You will recognize them not only for their gray/blue color and height—often more than 10 feet tall—but because they have endured so much better than most of their stone counterparts. The Oakes monument in Pioneer is a great example.

Space still available? Yes, licenses to inter are still available in most sections and can be purchased from the city.

How's the view? Bordered to the south by Warm Springs Avenue and just across from Dona Larson Park, this East Boise cemetery seems a natural extension of the neighborhood in which it sits. Deer, squirrels and the occasional Northender out for a walk frequently wander among the graves. Many of the old monuments share space with mature shrubbery and slowly deteriorating low border fencing.

It's a tranquil, antiquated, shady setting with benches and rose gardens.

click to enlarge KELSEY HAWES
  • Kelsey Hawes


Location: 9600 Hill Road


Founded: 1865, became a taxing district in 1936

Size: Around 100 acres—60 developed and 40 undeveloped

Number interred/entombed: 17,000

History: The earliest burials in this cemetery in the west Boise Foothills date to 1865, commingled with brand new, etched granite markers in a tremendous expanse of green lawns and huge trees.

What to look for: There are many really cool, upright tombstones with personalized etchings here, including portraits of the interred, vivid landscapes, favorite cars, poems and other memorabilia etched into the granite—some in full color.

Among the notable markers is Mark Stahl's gravesite. Stahl, who was shot and killed during a traffic stop in 1997, was the first—and so far only—Boise police officer killed in the line of duty. The top of his marker bears the emblem of the Boise Police Department and there are a scattering of police badges and tokens at the base.

At the northern border of the cemetery there are a series of hedges organized in the form of a huge, elaborate cross

Space still available? Yes, there is a lot of room for cemetery development here.

How's the view? From its spot in the western part of the Boise Foothills, the view from Dry Creek is stunning. Sage and juniper dot the surrounding hills and the city spreads out below to the south. On a clear day, you can see the Boise Airport to the east and almost all the way to Nampa in the west.

click to enlarge KELSEY HAWES
  • Kelsey Hawes


Location: 1200 North Cloverdale Road


Founded: 1935

Size: about 50,000 acres

Number interred/entombed: approximately 13,000

History: Established on what was then the outskirts of Boise, Cloverdale's design and landscape bends toward the early 20th century idea of a "memorial park" rather than a cemetery. Places to reflect and grieve—including ponds peppered with waterfowl, numerous memorial benches and manicured lawns—are scattered throughout the grounds. There are few upright markers in Cloverdale, removing the most iconic aspect of a cemetery from view. Flat markers are cheaper, require less upkeep and also make for easier mowing of those tremendous expanses of lawn.

What to look for: Born in Pocatello, Hamer Budge served in the House of Representatives from 1951-1961. In 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave him a seat on the Securities and Exchange Commission, where he eventually served as chairman from 1969-1971. He died in 2003 at the age of 92.

Cloverdale's website includes a video enjoining you to explore their "garden designed for cremation," which is completely "unique to Cloverdale."

Space still available? Yes. And Cloverdale offers the full-service funeral package, including caskets, chapel service, burial or cremation.

How's the view? Certainly, in 1936, this area was probably surrounded by farmland and sagebrush. Today, the cemetery sits at the busy corner of North Cloverdale and Fairview Avenue, and the intermittent bleating of car horns breaks the serene stillness from time to time. With so few upright markers, huge swaths of well-manicured grass, dotted with clusters of large trees and water features, Cloverdale feels far more like a park than a place to hold the dead. But the cemetery is big, and it's not hard to find a quiet and serene place to sit and ponder the big mysteries.

click to enlarge KELSEY HAWES
  • Kelsey Hawes


Location: 10100 N. Horseshoe Bend Road


Founded: 2004

Size: 76.5 acres with 17 developed acres

Numbered interred/entombed 7,183 with 700 interred or entombed last year

History: Located just north of Dry Creek Cemetery, the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery spreads out below a huge American flag on a raised overview at its northern end. Established for veteran burials in 2004, the cemetery conducts official military ceremonies at the rate of nearly 60 per month.

The land for the cemetery includes about 40 acres donated by the J.L. Terteling Company in 2002 and the remaining acreage purchased from the Dry Creek Cemetery District. Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne dedicated the cemetery to the state in 2004.

What to look for: On almost any given day, a ceremony of interment will be taking place here. Veterans are given full, military funeral honors including the playing of "Taps," the folding of the flag and an honor guard detail.

Space still available? Yes. Most World War II vets are now in their 90s and, according to the latest statistics, about 430 die each day across the country. The Idaho Veterans Cemetery is designed for another 25 years of service. Interment fees for veterans are covered by the Department of Veteran's Affairs.

How's the view? The cemetery grounds are both achingly patriotic and awe-inspiring, certainly befitting the people interred here. The American flag that waves from a nearby hilltop is huge and, from that high vantage point, you stare somberly at the rows and rows of uniform markers below. The view is simultaneously inspiring and sobering. Beyond the graves, the nearly full east to west expanse of the Treasure Valley unfolds like a promise.

According to, more than half the deaths in the U.S. now end in cremation. The two main reasons are obvious: relatives of the dead are more dispersed than ever—it's hard to make the long trip to visit grandpa's gravesite. Also, economically speaking, it's considerably cheaper to be cremated than buried. The average cremation and memorial program will run you about $3,200 while it's around $7,500 to be buried.

Many cremations now skip the memorialization cost altogether—just put grandpa's ashes on the shelf next to grandma's watercolor of the lake house. Plus, you can do stuff with ashes that you can't do with a casket. Spread them over a favorite landscape; split them up among family members; drop them from airplanes or boats, or a moving car on a favorite stretch of highway. Some people have even cast bullets from their loved one's ashes and shoot them at various woodland creatures out of respect for the deceased hunter of the family.

As of 2013, 58 percent of Idahoans chose cremation over burial. But make no mistake: a cemetery is a place of community. Walk among the markers in Boise's cemeteries and the living can view the dead as members of a place and a time in this town. Ashes don't keep that kind of company. A cemetery is full of people like you: people who lived a long time, or barely any time at all; who loved, wandered, married, divorced, fought in wars, stood in grocery lines; tried to make a difference in the time they had.

If nothing else, a graveyard is a visual commemoration of life, each headstone saying for the person it marks, "I was here."

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