This week, I got to indulge one of my passions: cemeteries. The Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, together with the Logy Bay-Middle Cove-Outer Cove Museum, hosted a Cemetery Transcription and Best Practices workshop, and for a whole day it was all cemeteries, all the time.
I’m used to people rolling their eyes when they hear that I like wandering through old cemeteries (the older the better…). Both passion and eye rolling started sometime when I was in junior high. And really, the passion has only grown stronger over the years (perhaps the eye rolling has, too, except now I don’t pay much attention). This was the first time that I was in a room filled with other cemetery-loving oddballs. OK, there were only six of us, total, but still…
We started with informal chit chat: would you pick berries in a cemetery (“Hell, no!” to “Obvs – they’re always big and juicy there”), and as the day progressed, wandered through a range of topics related to cemetery preservation and safeguarding.
Along the way, we talked about changing meanings of cemeteries: from seventeenth and eighteenth-century burial grounds (like Halifax’s Old Burying Ground) to nineteenth-century graveyards where folks sometimes gathered for picnics (at which point I recalled that Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and Percy Shelley professed their love for each other at her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave, and, indeed, may have had sex there as well), and finally to the more serious cemeteries, or places of rest, as we understand them today. The Victorians would likely have had no qualms eating the rich and juicy berries that grow in cemeteries; today, however, we are generally much more puritanical.
So what did I learn, and why does any of this matter?
Cemeteries are storied spaces. They aren’t just about the dead; they are fundamentally about the living. They are about how we make memory, and how we sustain it. They are about how we tell the stories of who we are.
But cemeteries are also selective spaces: Whose remains are recognized? Who warrants a tombstone, or even a written acknowledgement of their living and dying? Whose remains are allowed to rest within a given cemetery, and whose are not?
The Nieuwe Oranjetuin cemetery in Paramaribo was about the elite, many of whom, in the eighteenth century at least, paid in sugar for their right to be buried there. The burial grounds of the enslaved, meanwhile, have largely disappeared; some have eroded and washed away into the ocean.
How do we reconcile the missing and/or unmarked graves of children who died in residential schools, or the hundreds of babies whose remains were piled in the septic tanks of Ireland’s notorious Mother and Baby Home in Tuam? How do we acknowledge the living and dying of those confined to asylums, for whom only the barest of markers remain?
In Paris, overcrowded cemeteries led to the creation – in the eighteenth century – of the Catacombs, which house the bones of over 6 million individuals and are now a tourist attraction. My mother tells me that one of the houses she lived in as a child was apparently built on the site of a former cemetery, and that they played among the worn down gravestones in their back yard.
How do we navigate memory? How do we ensure its material manifestations? Who lived here? Who died here? Whose stories are told? Whose stories are erased, excavated and destroyed in the name of development? How do we make room for the dead in the land of the living?
Cemeteries are social spaces; they are as much about the living as they are about the dying. They tell stories of families, and also, of communities. Logy Bay-Middle Cove-Outer Cove has a proud regatta rowing history Among those interred at St. Francis of Assisi Cemetery, for example, are some who rowed to a 9:13 finish in the 1901 Royal St. John’s Regatta. Their tombstones commemorate this history. Other stories, too, emerge in oral history interviews and conversations.
Cemeteries might also be understood as “participatory museums,” Dale Jarvis said, referencing an article he’d read. They are intriguingly democratic spaces shaped and maintained by those who remain. Family and community are actively involved in the memorialization process. This is visible in tombstone design, decoration, and language, but also in how the space around the tombstone is kept up, maintained, and used.
One tombstone we recorded this afternoon memorialized a husband and wife. But in a tiny beach stone, there was a handwritten memorial to their dog (whose likeness was carved into the main headstone), who had died a number of years after them. Other, more recent tombstones, offered intimate glimpses into personal lives, interests, and passions: hockey teams, long distance truck hauling, farms, and more.
Cemeteries also tell stories of migrations. The Protestant Cemetery in St. John’s, where over 12,000 are interred, was apparently the general catch-all cemetery for anyone who wasn’t Anglican or Catholic. It might be understood, said Dale, as the immigrant cemetery. Not only are there many Presbyterians (who came over to Newfoundland from Scotland), but also Chinese immigrants, and there’s also a Swedish person (likely Lutheran, I imagine) buried there. So, too, is there a small Muslim section. A few Buddhists were also buried there.
All of this reminded me of the Nieuwe Oranjetuin cemetery in Paramaribo, which served as a colonial burial ground for over three hundred years. Within its walls, you can find Chinese immigrants, American sailors, European plantation owners, and others.
Tombstones, our host Dale Jarvis said, have a life cycle. They are never permanent. They interact with weather and land, and as such, they are constantly changing. They sink into the earth, they are battered by wind and rain. Over the years, their faces erode. In this way, Dale said, it might be worth thinking not of preservation, which suggests that we can maintain something in its current state forever, but rather, of safeguarding, which acknowledges the various stages of a tombstone’s life (and also, its ultimate death as is erodes and sinks into the earth).
We learned that there are, however, ways to speed a tombstone’s demise. Here’s a list of things best avoided: do not spray shaving cream on a tombstone so you can read the inscription more easily (seriously?). Nor is it a good idea to use bleach (which makes things sparkly white for a while, before eating away at marble…), or any sort of mechanical cleaning device (No, your Dremel Rotary Tool is not a good tombstone cleaning or refurbishing tool). Don’t paint the text a different colour in an effort to get it to stand out. While it might look good in the beginning, in the long run, this will get eaten away from the inside. Don’t place a broken tombstone in concrete in an effort to strengthen it. Or in plexiglass (!!). Or screw it into a metal frame Or in another hard stone. If at all necessary, go for a stone that is weaker than marble. It’s not even a good idea to do tombstone rubbings, as these can also wear away at the stone.
Instead, use light (a small, high power LED flashlight from the dollar store can work for this, but also consider time of day: dawn and dusk are ideal times for photographing tombstones), or photograph editing effects to get as much information as possible.
After our morning workshop, we headed out to St. Francis of Assisi Cemetery where we got to practice for real. We were tasked with identifying numerous elements of a tombstone, from its size, to its condition, material type, form, design details, and more. Our afternoon’s work will add to the records held by Logy Bay-Outer Cove-Middle Cove Museum, and hopefully, be of some use to researchers.
Cemetery transcription offers a way to archive as many details about tombstones as possible, so that future researchers can learn not only about those who lived and died, but also about broad design traditions and iconography, stone choices, and even, about the tombstone carving business itself.
Would I pick berries in cemetery? Yes, of course I would.
Would I, like Mary Shelley, profess my love for my partner at my mother’s grave (my mother is hale and hearty, by the way. I’m speaking theoretically here)? Not so much.
© Sonja Boon, 2019