Symbolism in Bozeman’s Sunset Hills Cemetery

As the leaves begin to change, the days shorten, and fall approaches, it is a perfect time to pay a visit to Sunset Hills Cemetery located at the south side of Lindley Park. The historic section of the cemetery is a perfect place to take a stroll and enjoy the beauty of the park-like setting and the carved headstones.

Cemeteries are like outdoor museums; the headstones reveal details about those who lived here before and built this town we now call home. Inscriptions disclose when the person lived and died, epitaphs relay the loss felt by those left behind, and the symbols that often accompany the inscriptions communicate more intangible concepts such as religion, fraternal affiliations, and the values held by the person during their lifetime. These symbols give us clues to better understand not only to the individuals buried in Sunset Hills Cemetery, but also the cultural complexity of the historic Bozeman community.

The headstone of Lewis Sperling, who is buried in the historic section of Sunset Hills Cemetery, gives us a peak into the world of nineteenth century Bozeman. His headstone is full of symbolism that tells us about his life as an early Bozeman resident. Like many who came to Bozeman in the late 1860s, he was not born in this country but came to America looking for a better life. Mr. Sperling was born in Poland in 1832. He came to America with his parents in 1858 when he was in his 20s. They landed in New York where they stayed for a few years. In New York, Lewis fitted out a peddler’s wagon and headed west to California but eventually made his way to Bozeman where he settled in 1868. In 1870, he met and married Miss Jeannette Strasburger from Virginia City. As time went on, he became a well-respected and well-to-do merchant of groceries, clothing, boots, and shoes among other items. Mr. Sperling died in 1890 at the age of 58 years old. When examining his headstone, the most prominent symbol is a Masonic square and compass with a “G” in the middle which stands for God in a non-denominational sense and for geometry.  This is a very common symbol used to represent membership in the Masons or Freemasons. The Freemasons are a fraternal order of men joined together for mutual help and fellowship. Mr. Sperling was a member of Bozeman’s Masonic fraternity, belonging to Gallatin Lodge No. 6 which still exists and is still very active in the Bozeman community today.

As we can see from his headstone, Mr. Sperling was not only a member of the Masons but also a member of the International Order of the Oddfellows symbolized by the three link chain. The three links of the chain represent friendship, love, and truth. The Oddfellows are a fraternal order that aims to provide a framework that promotes personal and social development. We can also deduce from Mr. Sperling’s headstone that he was Jewish. The Hebrew writing on his headstone reads, “May he rest in peace in his bed” and “may his soul be bound up in the bonds of eternal life.”

If you travel farther into the cemetery you will come across the headstone of Mr. David Walton who died in 1900. This headstone stands out as it is a treestone marker that represents a large oak tree stump. Treestone markers became popular in the 1880s and went out of fashion in the early 1900s. They are often carved from limestone and represent the Victorian rusticity movement which celebrated nature. The headstone represents the oak tree which is considered the king of trees and represents strength, endurance, honor, and virtue. At the base of the headstone, you will see fern leaves symbolizing humility, frankness, and sincerity. Ivy winds its way up and around the stump. Ivy is a plant that always stays green, even in harsh conditions; ivy represents immortality and fidelity. Because ivy clings to the tree, it also reminds us of attachment, friendship, and undying affection. If you look closely, an owl peers out from the side of the oak stump. The owl symbolizes wisdom, solitude, and watchfulness. At the base of the tree is a large anchor symbolizing hope. All the values encapsulated in this unique headstone are indicative of the Victorian era, values that people aspired to during life and hoped to have realized before death.

On the west side of the cemetery, in the oldest section, sits the monumental headstone of Agnes Taylor. You will notice that this headstone is not made out of stone but out of white bronze or zinc. White bronze came into fashion in the early 1870s and phased out during the First World War when all metal was used for military purposes. The Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut designed this unique headstone to look like granite, using a sandblasted zinc to replicate the blueish tinge of the stone. The advantage of white bronze was the cost. It was less expensive than stone and, because the monuments were hollow, the shipping costs were considerably less expensive as well, especially if you were shipping to Bozeman, Montana. Another beneficial aspect of the white bronze was its durability. Zinc held up to weather much better than marble, sandstone, or limestone. Bozeman’s Sunset Hills has a few of these white bronze headstones scattered throughout the cemetery.

The symbolism on Mrs. Taylor’s headstone includes draping near the top representing death and grief. Cloth draping was used extensively during funerals of the Victorian era. The casket, windows, mirrors, and front doors were draped as a show of mourning. This draping is often represented on headstones, and Mrs. Taylor’s headstone is no exception. On the backside of Agnes’s monument, there is a bundle of wheat with a sickle, symbolizing a fruitful life and rebirth. A wreath of roses adorns the front of the monument, symbolizing heavenly joy and bliss. There is also a lyre depicted symbolizing culture and refinement and an anchor symbolizing hope. Agnes lived a short life. She died at the age of 31 during childbirth. Her son Jamie lived only one year and 30 days. He is buried next to Agnes, and his grave is also adorned with a white bronze headstone.      

The historic Bozeman community was a small town with many connections and was culturally complex. If you walked down Bozeman’s Main Street in the late 19th century you would see a diverse mix of people and hear a diversity of languages including German, Chinese, Swedish, and hear a wide range of accents including British, Canadian, Irish, and deep southern drawls.  All these people settled in Bozeman and brought together different cultural ideas and values with the goal of remaking themselves as Americans. The headstone symbolism reflects this coming together as a new community. The fraternal symbolism represented by the Masons and the Oddfellows shows a dedication to a group that worked together for a shared interest and purpose. The Victorian symbolism present on gravestones shows an adherence to shared social values which gave community members a sense of belonging.  The Hebrew writing on Mr. Sperling’s grave tells us there was a small but strong community of Orthodox Jews in early Bozeman who were welcomed into the community and into the local Masonic fraternity.   

As fall approaches, take the opportunity to wander through the historic section of Sunset Hills Cemetery and look at the array of symbols; it will give you a chance to not only see beautiful artwork by skilled stone carvers but will also give you a better understanding of those who founded Bozeman and the values and sense of community they shared.

If you would like to learn more about symbolism in Sunset Hills Cemetery, join The Extreme History Project for its next walking tour, Symbolism in the Cemetery on October 27 at 11 a.m. You can meet the tour guide at the entrance to Sunset Hills Cemetery located at the south side of Lindley Park. The tour is about one-hour long and costs $10 per person, $7 for seniors and students. For more information on the Symbolism in the Cemetery tour or other tours, please visit the Extreme History Project’s walking tour website at