Canada abounds in historical burial places. Once you begin noticing their presence, old cemeteries seem to be everywhere. But these important links to the past are in danger of disappearing forever. The expansion of cities and roadways reclaim valuable land, and inscriptions are worn away by weather and time. Older cemeteries may be important records of immigration, settlement, armed forces, epidemics, class and religious schisms, and upward mobility of ethnic groups.
In Old Canadian Cemeteries, Jane Irwin invites the reader on a visual tour of historic cemeteries across Canada, examining such diverse topics as:
Old Canadian Cemeteries is a must for anyone interested in Canadian history.
Jane Irwin is a former professor of English Literature and an accredited member of the Association for Gravestone Studies. Her previous books include Burlington, for which she first teamed up with John de Visser.
John de Visser has garnered much praise for his striking photographs of Canadian places. His work appears in more than 50 books, and he holds a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Association of Photographers and Illustrators in Communications.
Discovering Historic Canadian Graveyards
Canada abounds in historic burial places. You may be driving along a two-lane country road and catch a sudden glimpse of a stone obelisk, glinting rays of sunlight from the middle of a field of tall grass and wildflowers. A low brick wall, a wide gate, or a quaint metal arch naming an old burying place invites you to stop for a brief investigation. More surprisingly, from a busy highway you may get a brief glance at a small group of gravestones beneath old trees, a quiet place despite its situation beside the unremittting roar of traffic. Once you begin noticing their presence, old cemeteries seem to turn up everywhere.
My own enthusiasm for historic graveyards grew from a general interest in local history. The area where I live was once a small village on the north shore of Lake Ontario. When I walk out my front door, I have merely to turn the corner to find myself beside St. Luke's Anglican Church, founded in 1832. The way to the lake naturally takes me through the churchyard, where old gravestones stand beneath tall locust trees, firs and maples. The trees were planted long ago and have shared the lifetimes of many churchgoers now resting peacefully beneath them. When my transplanted family put down its roots in this neighbourhood, I began to recognize that the names carved into the gravestones were the names of those who had founded the village, constructed its houses and established its businesses. The houses they built are now the homes of newcomers like myself It was satisfying to know that my predecessors were, in a sense, still present here.
Canada is sometimes said to be a country lacking sufficient awareness of its history. The rueful admission by Stephen Leacock is often quoted: "I never realized that there was history close at hand, beside my very own home. I did not realize that the old grave that stood among the brambles at the foot of our farm was history." Indeed, Canadians must acknowledge that too many of our nation's historic landmarks have been unrecognized, removed or forgotten. Their loss makes the monuments that remain ever more valuable.
It is the future that gives meaning to history. Memorials seem to be about the past, but in reality they always stand for the future. Remembrance is essentially about the life to come. "Eternal life" may mean various things to various people, but common to all its meanings s the concept of something that survives the passing of time. Burial places are places of memory. Set apart from the mundane pressures of our everyday lives, they have an inherent power to provide a brief respite from temporary concerns and a chance to see our own life in a longer perspective. A graveyard sets our present in the once and future continuum of other people's lives.
We walk by history daily, but not always our own ancestral history. If I were to travel northward and eastward from my home, I'd find 20 pioneer graveyards before reaching the urban borders of modern Burlington. Not one of them would contain the monuments or remains of my own ancestors. Even the graves of my mother and father are so far from where I now live that I seldom visit them. As for my more distant relatives, I recall one expedition made in the 1960s, to seek out genealogical information in an overgrown pioneer rural graveyard. From treacherous small holes in the ground issued little snakes. I was too disconnected from my rural heritage to identify them as harmless garter snakes, and both my young children and I were genuinely spooked that day. Had I only known then what I know now, surely I'd have photographed the gravestones. Instead I merely noted names and dates, as if those bare facts were all that mattered.
In the past 40 years much has been lost from the inscribed records of pioneer gravestones. When I compare 1970s photographs of early gravestones to the same stones today, how I regret that I was not one of the pioneers who saw the need to make a pictorial record of what since has been worn away by time and environment. I was not in any way ahead of my time, and it is small consolation that not many people were. Even the acclaimed American author and photographer Eudora Welty, who took "a lot of cemetery pictures" in Mississippi in the 1930s and 1940s, did not see them published until some years after the publication of her other photographs. Her book Country Churchyards finally appeared in 2000, when she was in her nineties.
How surprising it is that the author who lived for more than 75 years in the house her father built, and whose stories created for her readers a virtual experience of Old Mississippi, felt herself to be a stranger, a newcomer. But how typical she was, too, as a cemetery enthusiast. Without having any kin or family buried there, she was susceptible to a feeling of kinship with all kinds of families. In a graveyard, what might usually be a gossipy interest in other people's lives is tempered by our sense that death has made superfluous any passing judgement by the living.
Welty also comments that "Mississippi had no art except in cemeteries." Many people have, like her, come to appreciate cemeteries as plein-air art galleries. Older graveyards are filled with wonderful examples of sculpture, and handcrafted lettering too, of a quality that is rarely produced today. As with all artistic appreciation, the pleasure to the eye is matched by the appeal to the mind. The visual symbols on gravestones are part of ancient iconographical traditions, and their interpretation often requires exploring several layers of meaning.
Cemetery visitors should be given an early warning: fascination with graveyards tends to grow with each exposure to them. Searching out favourite themes, even such seemingly innocuous ones as willows, urns and obelisks, may develop into a kind of addiction. Soon a mania develops for collecting these representations (by camera, of course). One begins to perceive certain patterns of repetition-with-variation, and to find individual traits identifying the hand of a regional school or even a particular sculptor. Connoisseurship of gravestone art is a career open to all talents. Those who are already hooked are generous in sharing their knowledge and their discoveries. Once having reached this stage, one might as well join the Association of Gravestone Studies and exchange stories with other AGS members about how, without quite intending to, we got into this field. But anyone can enjoy visiting old graveyards. Although a smattering of art and history and natural history is helpful, no scholarly expertise is required.
Old cemeteries are also places of great natural beauty and diversity. Many are sites for meetings with remarkable trees, some planted a century or more ago. Smaller plants in our earliest pioneer burying grounds may be easily overlooked, or even regularly mowed down, but they are equally remarkable survivors too, and rare specimens of our natural heritage. Many old roses and varieties now known as "heritage flowers" were planted at the graveside in pioneer family burying grounds and are seldom found elsewhere. Naturalist groups such as the Nature Conservancy of Canada have raised public awareness about extremely rare survivals, in a few "abandoned" rural cemeteries, of native plant life from even before the time of European settlement. The Russ Creek Cemetery in the Township of Alnwick-Haldimand, Ontario, is one such remnant of the dry tallgrass prairie that once covered extensive tracts over the Rice Lake Plains and the Oak Ridges Moraine but is now considered one of the most endangered ecosystems in Canada. For Ontario Nature (the Federation of Ontario Naturalists), that old cemetery, less than a hectare in size, is "a priceless jewel of Ontario's natural and cultural heritage." Historical gravestones are also treasured by specialists in fibre arts -- hand-weavers, spinners and dyers -- as sustenance for rare lichens. It is not uncommon for naturalists who set off a quest for a rare sighting of the prairie buttercup, say, to find themselves becoming enthusiastic about old cemeteries. They are places to experience uniqueness and variety in the natural world.
The great Rural Cemeteries established, from the 1840s, in cities across Canada were created to illustrate "the beauties of nature combined with art." Often chosen for their scenic or even sublime vistas of mountains, rivers, lakes and oceans, the sites of these cemeteries were artfully transformed by landscape architects. They are comparable to the celebrated public parks created about the same time by Frederick Law Olmsted and others. Central to their vision was the planting of trees, both native and exotic. More than a century later, these cemeteries are among the finest aboretums in Canada. Long since surrounded by the restless activity of growing cities, they have become havens of treasured greenspace. Not at all far from the madding crowd of urban occupations, they provide habitats for birdlife and peaceful retreats for visitors. They were expressly designed to be admired, visited and appreciated. Picturesque and full of diversity, they invite extended browsing. Whether alone, in company or on a guided tour, enjoy them, treasure them.
Changing Burial Traditions
Exploring Canada's Historic Cemeteries
Old Canadian Cemeteries: A Visual Tour
Conserving the Future of Memory
More Stories in Old Stones
Note from the Photographer