Bringing the Past to the Present for the Future

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Sunday, April 1, 2007

Cemeteries as a Cultural Resource

(reprinted courtesy of the Ministry of Culture-click on the link above to be redirected to their website)

Older cemeteries are visible, tangible links with people who made history -- ordinary individuals as well as famous people. The inscriptions on their monuments tell us not only their names and dates, but often where they lived, their occupation and affiliations, the manner of their death, personal traits that survivors held dear, and names of relatives. These inscriptions instruct us about local, medical, and material history, cultural geography, historical archaeology, folklore, genealogy, and much more.

A cemetery is more than a collection of interesting historical data -- as precious and revealing as that may be. It is also a place -- an open space populated by monuments and vegetation -- which forms a very particular and revealing part of our built environment. There are things to be learned from the overall layout and arrangement of the monuments. We can note the nature and quality of the materials; we can see the skill of the monument makers and observe the richness of the symbolism. We can wonder at the age of the trees and the choice of species and imagine the look of the surrounding landscape in earlier times. We can speculate on what prompted this location to be chosen for a cemetery and how the presence of the cemetery has influenced the neighbourhood in which it is located. Each cemetery has its own history of creation, development, and growth, and together Ontario's heritage cemeteries form an irreplaceable part of the province's cultural heritage.

Older cemeteries demonstrate their value as a cultural heritage resource in different ways. They have aptly been called outdoor classrooms. For students of all ages they offer endless possibilities for continuing education involving both natural and historical resources. Some cemeteries promote recreational use of their grounds by maintaining extensive and well-labelled collections of plants and trees, by welcoming hikers, cyclists, photographers, and birdwatchers, and by organizing walking tours and outdoor chamber-music concerts. Cemeteries can supplement community park systems and enhance adjacent public open spaces; larger, park-like cemeteries provide habitats for wildlife.

The character of a cemetery changes with the passage of time. There are active cemeteries, which accept interments, and there are inactive cemeteries - some still maintained, though closed, and others abandoned. Time also inevitably alters the landscape within and around a cemetery. Weathering, often aided by environmental pollutants, can damage monuments and structures, as can accidents, vandalism, and neglect. Well-intentioned interventions may obliterate the original relationships among carefully laid out parts of the cemetery. Maintenance costs, ageing infrastructure, changing surroundings and context, and public liability are pressures facing all cemeteries.

These pressures can lead to a diminution of those elements that give a cemetery its value as a cultural resource, such as its architectural and landscape heritage, as well as its educational, interpretative, and contextual value. It may also result in loss of social and family history, which would be of special value to those connected to the people interred.

Fortunately, many of Ontario's older cemeteries remain substantially intact. They deserve thoughtful, long-term conservation planning. Only if each generation exercises careful stewardship will they survive as records of the past and as a cultural heritage resource to be shared with generations as yet unborn. The ministry's publication, Landscapes of Memories - A Guide for Conserving Historic Cemeteries: Repairing Tombstones, contains information and technical advice intended to foster the conservation of Ontario's heritage cemeteries in a manner commensurate with their status as an irreplaceable cultural heritage resource.