Columbia Cemetery City’s Oldest Business

Photo by Gwen Girsdansky

The day of Tanja Patton, superintendent of Columbia Cemetery, fills up pretty fast. But what else could be expected when you’re running a business that started in 1820? This makes Columbia Cemetery the oldest business in Columbia.

Work starts with meeting and greeting the public who walk around the grounds. She helps people who are looking for their family members for genealogy projects and historians. She also helps people finding pre-need graves. Patton also directs the part-time employees what needs to be done throughout the 32.12 acres, paying bills and helping coordinate funerals and memorials.

“I did a grave inventory last month,” Patton said. This included extensive research into lot owner’s old books and combing through the grounds. She found that there are still over 10,000 plots left for sale.

Each grave doesn’t take up too much space. The sites are generally 4’ by 8’ for full burials, though they can go up to 4’ x 10’. Then there are ‘bits’ that are available for people who want to bury ashes that are 4’ x 4’.

“That will last forever,” she said. The cemetery sees about between 40 to 50 burials each year and they are seeing fewer full burials.

“We aren’t selling like we used to, we have a lot fewer grave sales,” Patton said. “I might be down 5 or 10 percent.”

Instead the trend is cremation. Patton said that 58 percent of her business is now in cremations.  It could be because more people are comfortable with the idea of being cremated, though some religions still stand staunch against the idea. But it could also because it is more cost effective.

But, if they choose to still have the full burial, coffins, concrete and embalmment are not requirements like in some cemeteries, which helps accommodate some religions such as Judaism.

“We’re old fashioned,” Patton said.

The association tries to maintain the values of a common burial ground that was established when the cemetery was begun in 1820. According to its website, at that time the land the equivalent to six city blocks were designated a common burial ground. The land was given to the city in 1829 by Daniel and Elizabeth Wilcox, and fell into disrepair.

In 1853, the Columbia Cemetery Association was started to organize the burials and the cemetery has remained under its care for over 160 years.

During the time of its inception, people tended to buy big family lots because families tended to live in the same area and people didn’t move and travel as much as they do now.

However, despite people having a tendency to move more frequently, people still have a tie to their community. A new trend is people are buying bits of land to place a memorial because they want to have some type of remembrance in Columbia although they will be buried elsewhere.

In the last 15 years, that Patton said that may have happened all of three times. But within the last few months it’s already happened four times.

However, a cemetery does not just run itself.  There are six employees, four of which are part-time students that need to be paid. The part-time employees are hired through HireMizzou.

“I get excellent, excellent employees through them.”

The other two employees are Patton and her husband, Allan, the gravedigger. He maintains the three mowers and a backhoe.

All of this costs money, something that the cemetery does not bring enough in. And it never has, which is why the association decided it needed alternative funding when it first began. So the Columbia Cemetery Association has several rental properties that help supplement the income.

“It’s a business we have to maintain,” Patton said.

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