Those of you who follow the Canadian Cemetery History account on Twitter will know I often post pictures of flora and fauna from old cemeteries. And there’s a reason why.
The spring and summer are the best seasons for getting out for a walk and visiting old cemeteries. During the months of April to August you get a chance to see nature literally spring up from the ground. Suddenly, a cemetery that was beautiful but somewhat lacking in colour (just the colours of the stones themselves and a few bare trees) explodes with colour and different kind of flowers.
While walking through cemetery grounds and pondering the mysteries of life and death gravestones often evoke, there’s something special about suddenly being greeted with a blast of reds, yellows, greens, and purples. Recently, my wife and I went walking in a cemetery where the tulips were blooming and let me tell you, it made my day. One can’t help but feel their spirit lifted when seeing such beautiful colours.
Depending on the flower, one can also notice that the types planted at gravesites tend to be long-standing symbols of love, or hope and belief in an afterlife. For example, Lily of the Valley, an early bloomer with beautiful white flowers, can symbolize hope, purity, renewal, and resurrection. Roses, perhaps no surprise, symbolize love.
This is the time of year to get out for a walk and visit your local old cemetery. During these months you’ll see the entire place evolve from week to week while different flowers bloom and wither as the seasons progress from spring to summer and then fall, when the cycle ends and life goes back to waiting out the winter again. I’ll leave you with some nice photos, but in the meantime get out there when you can and take some of your own!
This summer I decided that it would be fun to produce an “Old Cemeteries of Niagara” wall calendar for 2021, showcasing some of the interesting old stones and sites in Niagara, which is *full* of old cemeteries. I printed a limited number. If you’re interested, the cost is $20, which includes shipping anywhere in Canada. Orders can be requested HERE.
Recently I've been working on some YouTube videos, and the goal is to produce many on a range of themes over the coming months. I'm still trying to improve my camera work and video editing skills, so the "official" launch of the channel will be coming later, but for now, those who want to get a taste of what the first videos look like can find them on my channel HERE.
Below is a video I recently made of St. Andrew's Churchyard in Grimsby, Ontario. There are British Empire Loyalists and numerous other settlers buried here. In this video, we'll explore some of the interesting epitaphs, gravestones, and symbols, as well as some of the area's history.
I hope you enjoy it! If you like what you see, please subscribe to my channel and give this video a "thumbs up."
An article about some of my current projects and thoughts on the historic (and historical) importance of old cemeteries was featured on the front page of The St. Catharines Standard and Niagara Falls Review. click the link below to read the story, and let me know your thoughts!
Niagara Historian Finds Life in the Stories of the Dead
On July 2nd and July 9th, my videos produced with the Niagara Falls Museum about historic Drummond Hill Cemetery were released on the Museum's YouTube channel. Both videos examine some of the common symbols seen at the cemetery and some interpretations of what they mean. I tried to keep the explanations free of any jargon (e.g. "Woman leaning on a gravestone with an urn on top" instead of "Pedestaled urn". I hope you enjoy them! Please be sure to "like" them if you enjoyed the content. Click below to watch.
On Monday, June 22nd an interview with Canadian History Ehx podcast host Craig Baird was released. On the show I discussed my thoughts on the importance of cemetery history, my inspirations, and the case of John Leighton, a sailmaker who died in Quebec City in July 1834, possibly of Cholera. I enjoyed the interview and Craig really made me feel comfortable. Those who want to listen to the interview can do so HERE.
In collaboration with the Grimsby and St. Catharines Libraries (Niagara Region), I gave my first ever Zoom talk. I have to admit, it was strange not seeing faces in the audience, and being able to gauge reactions to particular stories or stones, but I enjoyed it and am happy that libraries and museums have taken to online methods of keeping art/culture/history talks going during COVID-19. Since this might be the way things are done for the foreseeable future or beyond, I'm looking forward to doing more and figuring out how to maximize audience enjoyment.
Regarding COVID-19, the elephant in every room right now: Throughout this period, when many places have instituted isolation and social distancing rules, there has been no better time to visit old cemeteries. I'm lucky in that living in the Niagara Region gives me the option of visiting dozens of old cemeteries without running into anyone - except the dead of course.
There have been many newspaper articles about people in cities flocking to cemeteries when the parks were shut down, and I have to say, this trend made me sad, not necessarily because having *too* many people in cemeteries brings disrespectful behaviour (similar to how large crowds behave in parks or at concerts - garbage strewn everywhere, people leaning on things, etc.), but because people see cemeteries as their "last resort" for green space. In every city, town, and village, there are those who walk their dogs or jog in cemeteries, but most people still see cemeteries as "depressing" or "morbid" places to avoid. I chalk a lot of this up to our twenty-first century culture, in which we imagine somehow that thinking about death is bad luck, and avoiding it will mean immortality. COVID-19 has been a tragic reminder, if nothing else, that we are fragile creatures floating on a rock in the middle of a large universe that gave us to itself and will take us away at some point too.
Lest this end up turning into a rant, my point, which I hope you saw me getting at, is that cemeteries should be seen as places to visit anytime our fancy strikes us, not just when there is no place left to go. As I've gone on about numerous times on Twitter and in my public talks, old cemeteries are places of art, history, beliefs, and beauty, and should be valued as necessary places, but also places that can provide us with a therapeutic escape from the hustle and bustle of modern life. When you say to someone that cemeteries are like free outdoor museums (a point that's been made many times by many people across time), it's as if a light bulb goes off, and most people react with something like, "Yeah, I guess you're right, they are." Suddenly their mind is tuned to a whole different way of thinking, and the door is open to learning and exploration. We need more of that.
Mainstream culture (however you want to define it) seems so set in its ways of maximizing consumption, leisure, and pleasure. Cemeteries just don't seem to fit into most people's idea of something that could give them leisure or pleasure, but I hope with the rise in the number of people talking about death, cemeteries, and history/heritage, that this will slowly change before it's too late for many of our suffering burial grounds, full of stones in need of repair and stories wanting to be read by the curious visitor.
On the positive side, I'm finally writing a book about cemeteries. I'm keeping details vague for now as it's going to change as I brainstorm and being writing, but I'll certainly keep you posted! :)
Great news! This week a few of my thoughts on body snatching in Canada in the nineteenth century were featured in a long and informative article by Katie Daubs of the Toronto Star newspaper. We spoke for about an hour about the subject, and I tried to provide as much insight as I could into cases I've read about in Ontario newspapers, as well as analysis of the subject from a history of medicine standpoint. Katie did a great job on this piece, which was thoroughly researched and written in an accessible manner. If you're interested you can find the piece by clicking below, or by going to the the media tab at the top of the page:
"To study a body, first you had to dig one up. How medical students in Canada earned a ghoulish reputation"
Last Saturday, October 5th, 2019, Stephanie (who runs Canadian Heritage Matters) and I gave tours of the Vineland Mennonite Burial Ground as part of Doors Open Lincoln. Established in 1798 on the Moyer Farm, it was the earliest major burial ground of Mennonite settlers from Pennsylvania who came north from Bucks County after the American Revolution. Given its age and the survival of many of the oldest stones, it's an excellent site for reading stories in stone of early Upper Canadian history.
The Mennonites often came for two reasons. One was that land in Pennsylvania had already become scarce, leading many farmers to seek larger tracts for cheaper prices in the newly established Upper Canada. The second and more important reason related to their religious beliefs. As pacifists who aimed to live according to the teachings of Jesus, many were afraid of religious persecution or being conscripted into the colonial militia in the new United States. Most came seeking a comfortable and peaceful life near "The Twenty" mile creek and surrounding area.
Shortly after their arrival beginning in the 1780s, they needed a place to bury their dead. Samuel Moyer, who was the first teacher and an early farmer, donated some of his land in what is now Vineland, Ontario, for that purpose. What makes the Mennonite Burial Ground so interesting is that so many stones from the early 1800s have survived, telling the tale of early life and death in the area. Some of the oldest stones are also carved in German, or in some cases, both English and German, reflecting the Mennonites' Germanic heritage. One stone, for Daniel High, is even carved in fraktur script, a beautiful and difficult script that even with age looks incredibly beautiful.
Another interesting feature of the site is that not all of the people buried there were Mennonites. In fact, just a row over from Mennonite pacifists lie John Claus and his wife Mary, United Empire Loyalists who came over as part of a group that included Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant. Unlike the Mennonites, who came from Pennsylvania, Claus and Brant came from Tryon County, New York, after fighting with Butler's Rangers (in Brant's case commanding his own warriors as a British ally), a fierce unit that fought guerrilla-style warfare and terrorized the New York countryside in support of the British Crown. The Claus stones are some of the earliest that have survived, a fact that is easily discernible by the amateur carving of the inscriptions, which have uneven lettering, and in the case of Mary's stone, is slightly slanted.
Some of the notable and sad stories include that of Abraham Overholt, who was murdered in 1813, and Ernest Brix, a teenager who was hit by a Grand Trunk Railway train in 1915. There are also numerous stones of women who died at a young age, most often in childbirth, a testament to the particularly precarious nature of women's health at a time when they were expected to birth numerous children without the aid of modern hospitals and medicine. Lastly, the site also has one of the grimmest verses I've come across, for John Evans, who died at just seventeen in 1841: "Pray all young men, as you pass by, Upon this Grave but cast your eye; I in my prime was snatch'd away, As you may be this very Day." That verse, which can be seen with many slight variations in nineteenth century cemeteries, is a Memento Mori, a Latin term which is translated as "Remember that you must die." John Evan's stone certainly causes one to stop and think!
We were very happy with the number of interested and engaged visitors who came from Lincoln and beyond to learn about the site. Many left saying things like, "I had no idea how old many of the stones were," or, "I didn't realize all those symbols had different meanings." We tried on every tour to demonstrate that cemeteries are unique and invaluable repositories of a community's history, especially in the case of sites as old as the Mennonite Burial Ground, which existed before written records were consistent and thorough. In some cases, the gravestones are the only evidence we have that a person ever existed. So be sure to go out and visit your local cemetery and see what stories in stone are waiting to be read!
Ps. This post was cross-posted on Canadian Heritage Matters.
Great news! I was recently asked by Julia Wright of CBC Saint John to give an interview based on my visit to Saint John, New Brunswick, and several of the cemeteries in and around the city. I managed - in a short, three day trip unrelated to cemeteries - to visit the Black Settlement Burial Ground in Willow Grove, just outside of Saint John, Fernhill Cemetery in Saint John proper, and the Old Loyalist Burial Grounds in the city centre. Every site was amazing in its own way, and each spoke to the unique and diverse history of the province. Click HERE to listen to the full ten minute interview!