Bringing the Past to the Present for the Future

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Sunday, April 1, 2007

Cemetery Improvement Projects

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

Well-intentioned individuals and groups have over the years sought to improve cemeteries in projects ranging from quick clean-ups to total reconfigurations of the original layout. Many generations of Ontarians have expressed concern about poor conditions in older cemeteries. The Canadian Freeman in 1833 called the St James churchyard "the most dangerous nuisance" in York (Toronto) and urged the Board of Health to take action. A correspondent to the Canada Farmer asked in 1864, "Why is it that the grounds here are left so untidy, some of them full of logs and stumps?" An editorial of 1903 in the Canadian Horticulturist commented, "A neglected graveyard with uncut grass, broken fences and stones that are falling over, seems to shame the living, and speak loudly of their lack of reverence for their ancestry."

A common response to overcrowded and development-pressed urban cemeteries has been to close them. An early example is the churchyard of Toronto's St James (Anglican) Cathedral, closed after the city's new cemetery, St James Cemetery, opened farther north, near Bloor Street, in 1844. Over ensuing decades, some of the human remains and monuments were transferred, others replaced, and still others abandoned. (Some surviving markers were affixed in the twentieth century to the protected porch walls of the cathedral.) Though most of the elements of this early cultural landscape have been removed, this former churchyard remains a significant open space.

Potter's Field was York's first (1826) non-sectarian cemetery. Its six-acre site was built over several times and was closed in 1875 because of public health concerns and land-use pressures. It is now identified only by a plaque at the north-west corner of Yonge and Bloor streets in Toronto.

The condition of monuments has long been a motivation to action for individuals and organizations -- often with less than satisfactory results. Over the years, many broken monuments and their fragments have been tossed aside or pilfered. Even if carefully buried at the gravesite or placed in a cemetery storage building, records of their origins and new locations have tended to get lost. Families having old monuments replaced have seldom had the full inscription, the carvings, and the carver's name replicated. Moreover, even the replicated information has sometimes been copied incorrectly.

The Pioneer Pergola in St Andrews Park in Galt (Cambridge) was an early, well-intentioned effort to preserve monuments on a large scale. In 1907, near the site of St Andrews Church (demolished 1889), the Waterloo Chapter of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire created the pergola, with concrete walls, pillars, and floor, surmounted by rustic wooden beams. Into its concrete faces it incorporated the 207 monuments remaining in the churchyard. Though this structure was designated under the Ontario Heritage Act in 1983 for the historical significance of its records, the stone and inscriptions are now deteriorating rapidly. Worse still, records of the relative positions of markers, vegetation, church, and other landscape elements were destroyed in 1907.

Ironically, most such "preservation" efforts were made as a celebration of history and as part of a government-sponsored program. In 1967, many communities in Ontario, particularly in the southwest, sought to cure their older cemeteries' ills using funds provided by the federal and provincial governments on a per-capita, dollar-for-dollar matching basis. Many attempted radical operations.

In some cemeteries, each row of monuments would be reset in one long concrete slab, though the locations of graves and the orientations of markers to graves were, if known, retained. In other places, more disruptive changes took place, with the original grave arrangement scaled down and the monuments reset into a much smaller concrete square or rectangular concrete pad. In the better examples, the monuments were placed in their original horizontal and vertical orientations. In the worst, formerly upright monuments were set flat in the concrete, destroying all sense of original location and differences in height and width.

The most radical solutions involved the placing of monuments and fragments of monuments in new and unrelated locations within the original cemetery. As a result, monument-embellished buildings, contiguous and freestanding walls, retaining walls, and cairns dot many of Ontario's southern counties, most noticeably along Hwy 10 and rural county roads.

The long term physical damage to monuments from setting them in mortar or concrete has been severe, as explained in the ministry's publication, Landscapes of Memories, A Guide for Conserving Historic Cemeteries: Repairing Tombstones. Wholesale clearing of "overgrown" and "unwanted" vegetation, plus maintenance with machines and chemicals, has also destroyed heritage plants and historic vegetation patterns. Moreover, the reconfiguration of monuments and loss of heritage planting patterns have detracted from the historical-cultural integrity of the cemetery.

Attitudes to conservation and landscape preservation are continually evolving. We now recognize that some past efforts to preserve our cemetery heritage, though they seemed positive solutions to pressing problems, have had harmful long-term effects. We cannot change the irreversible actions of the past, but given more foresight and planning we can now choose methods that are reversible and allow options for the future.