In these modern times, death is portrayed as uncommon and tragic, often hidden from daily life. Contrast that to the rollicking days of the Wild West, where gunfights and hangings were common occurrences in the town square, and it’s easy to see how a place like Boothill Graveyard would seem curious now.
A rocky burying grounds atop a hill in the historic Old West town of Tombstone, Arizona, Boothill Graveyard is a looking glass through which we can see a time and place where death came casually, and even humorously. Chintzy wooden signs mark the graves of about 300 men, women, and children who passed, literally, through Tombstone at the height of its infamy.
Although this cemetery and the town that surrounds it are now known as tourist attractions due to their quirky Old West appeal, and because the town was the site of the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, a less appetizing aspect of the town’s history that isn’t discussed as much is the cemetery’s segregation by race, with one section reserved and marked for Jewish graves, and another for Chinese graves. Even in a place where death itself was taken lightly, the divisions between races were carried on into the afterlife.
More often than not, the graves are unmarked by date or even name. Mostly they tell a blunt tale of how a person came to be deceased. “MURDERED,” reads one in outraged capital letters, while another says “Found dead in his cabin with bullet wounds,” solemnly giving more detail. It’s up to the visitor to examine the distinction between terms like “Hanged” and “Legally Hanged.”
But the main reason this cemetery has become the stuff of legend is its often humorous take on death. One grave marker famously reads “Here lies Lester Moore. 4 slugs from a .44. No Les. No More.” Others imply a certain savagery of the time, like the one indicating two women who came to murderous blows over a man, or another that marks the grave of a man who simply “died in a dispute.”
Since the original grave markers were wooden, very few remnants have actually remained throughout the graveyard. Most of what visitors see there now are recreations of the originals for the benefit of tourists, which detracts a little from the historical mystique. But a few are still standing—in their original, tongue-in-cheek glory.