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City of Billings works to locate unmarked graves at Mountview Cemetery

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Posted at 8:25 PM, Sep 08, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-09 10:30:11-04

BILLINGS — At Mountview Cemetery in Billings, there’s a mystery waiting to be solved. Dozens of people are buried there without grave markers. With the help of a MSU Billings professor, the city is working to try and identify exactly where these graves are.

At the largest and oldest continuously operated cemetery in the region, there’s a lot of history just waiting to be unearthed.

“These people are literally invisible. They’ve been forgotten for nearly a hundred years at this point. They deserve to have their name recognized in the record,” said the Western Heritage Center community historian, Lauren Hunley, on Wednesday.

That’s where MSUB history professor, Dr. Thomas Rust, comes in. He was contacted by city parks and rec last year with an unusual request.

“They had a number of areas that they would like explored here to see how many people and where they would be buried,” Rust said on Tuesday.

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His 2022 spring semester class accepted that challenge. They spent weeks combing the cemetery with ground penetrating radar, identifying dozens upon dozens of unmarked graves.

“This unit down here is a 500-megahertz ground penetrating radar and it sends radio waves into the ground and when it reaches something hard, it will send an image back to the receiver part of the unit which then goes through this wire into the computer, which then gives me a graphic display and lets me know there’s something under there,” Rust said.

Rust compares it to mowing your yard: You just walk back and forth until the radio waves tell you there’s something in the ground. The clarity of the images largely depends on the topography of the area.

“It’s fun to do that, and when something pops up on the screen, it gives you that little thrill,” said Rust.

The first burial at Mountview Cemetery likely happened back in 1882, when a homesteader named Daniel Larson set aside several acres of land for a community cemetery.

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Hunley said many buried there were people who couldn’t afford proper burials. Their graves are called potter's graves.

“The city or the county would take over your burial and it would be as bare as you can get it. Wooden box, dig a hole, bury you, no service, no flowers, usually no marker,” said Hunley.

There were also at least three mass graves in the cemetery from when the flu pandemic hit Montana back in 1918.

“We want to be able to identify one, where the grave is because once we can identify that location, we can start to understand and start putting names to those people,” Hunley said.

It’s a mission that Rust is determined to complete because he believes marking these graves is important not only from a historical standpoint but also from a moral one.

“It gives these people a certain level of dignity and respect to know where they are even if we can’t put a specific name to the individual, that at least we know there are individuals there,” Rust said.