Other Duties as Assigned: Cemetery Maintenance

Part of my job this week included a number of ‘other duties as assigned’ tasks.  One of such tasks included assisting with cleanup of the Residential School cemetery which is on site where I work. Since I like gardening this was actually a nice afternoon break one day.

This particular cemetery was in use from 1876 to around 1970 and has staff, students, and members of the Anglican Church buried there.  Following the closure of the Residential School on the site, the cemetery fell into a state of disrepair and neglect.  Today the cemetery is well looked after, however years of poor maintenance and weather eliminated all the wooden markers in the cemetery and many of the stone tombstones are in rough shape. 

Overgrown weeds, mossy broken tombstones, missing grave markers, and unknown boundaries are characteristics of cemeteries throughout Canada.  Upkeep of no longer used or unregistered cemeteries have a tendency to become neglected over time. Additionally, the very nature of grave markers and tombstones – outdoors and exposed to the elements – make them susceptible to premature damage and deterioration.

Some cemeteries are well documented and the loss of a marker or the fading of a stone inscription isn’t a complete loss of burial information as the plots have been documented by the cemetery.  However, even when burial plots are well documented often the actual inscriptions on tombstones aren’t formally recorded.  Similarly if a municipality doesn’t (or didn’t) keep accurate records of burial plots if a wooden marker rots or the inscription on a tombstone fades, the information on who was buried in that location is lost.

For example, the Residential School cemetery where I work no longer has any of the wooden crosses which marked the majority of the student graves.  The loss of markers was a huge loss as no formal records noting burials or plot locations have been located for this cemetery.  As with many Residential School cemeteries, the number of students buried and the names of all the students buried in the cemetery are unknown. 

Cemeteries and grave markers can provide an abundance of genealogy and historical information, but only if they are well documented or preserved. So what about those crumbling tombstones and loss of information through deterioration? There are a variety of different preservation tools that can be used by municipalities and other interest groups to preserve the historical information found in cemeteries.

  • Document existing gravestones, especially those which are made of wood or other elements which are very susceptible to rot and other forms of rapid deterioration. Gravestones and inscriptions can be documented by using photography and written documentation. 
  • Organize and keep accurate burial records.  This might be employing an archivist to organize existing records relating to the cemetery.  An archivist can help provide order and structure to boxes of unused records.  This organization will help make the records more accessible and searchable for researchers. 
  • It is possible to clean stone tombstones. This is typically undertaken to remove moss, dirt, and other surface growth.  However, I would recommend looking into a professional providing this service (or at very least providing training on how to go about the cleaning), as it is possible to damage the stones if you use abrasive products or tools. 

If you are interested in searching out ancestors or information about a particular cemetery in Ontario, you might want to begin by using Ontario Genealogical Society’s Ontario Cemetery Ancestor Search.  A list of the cemeteries which have been indexed by the OGS and are included in the Ancestor Search can be also be found online.

Academia Meets Community in a Battle of Understanding

Last week I attended a presentation that was part of a community commemoration event.  The lecture touched on the history of a minority community one, that the speaker was not part of.  Many of the audience members were part of this community and were offended by the approach the speaker took to ‘their personal history.’  Since this lecture I’ve been struggling with the presentation content, audience reaction, and the gap between academic and public conceptions of history.

I’m sure the audience outrage at the event wasn’t a unique experience.  Many communities –women, indigenous people, racial groups, and the LGBT community, etc — have had the history of their communities explored by ‘outsiders.’  This type of research is far from inherently bad, it has the potential to create bridges and provide new insight to research topics.  However, cultural sensitivity and awareness are crucial to this type of work. Without awareness and understanding, historians can easily tread into unwelcome ground with communities.

The nature of academic publishing and conferences can cause academic historians to miss opportunities of engagement with the community who’s past they are researching.  Additionally, it is entirely possible that during the composition of a research paper an academic historian spends numerous hours on archival research and doesn’t ever visit or speak with the community they are researching.  This approach completely ignores the value of oral history and community resources.  It also disengages historians from the general public.

Back to the previously mentioned outraged audience.  Was the academic wrong to take a new approach to an accepted past? Of course not.  Was this community commemoration event the proper place to address this approach? Possibly not.  A number of audience members thought the presentation offensive and some considered it outright racist.  Had the audience been composed of academics the response would have most likely been completely different and not contain such an emotional response.

The very nature of public history involves sharing the past with the general public.  So, how does one bridge the gap from academia to public forum?  In my mind, community participation in all stages of research is key.  Knowing and reaching out to your audience/community can help bridge the academic-public gap.

Conceptualizing Rural History

Last week a co-worker who is currently reading up on the history of her city asked me if I had ever been interested in the town history of where I grew up.  This simple question had me stumped.  The majority of my life I have lived outside of town, and didn’t readily identify with a closest town.  I had no real town history to speak of.

 I grew up on a concession road, part of a rural township that had very little in terms of central services. The majority of the houses on my road were farms with kilometers of fields separating neighbours. How does one explore a community’s history when the vast majority of area residents live outside of what most people see as traditional community?

Rural communities are not void of history, but often these histories are recorded and remembered in different ways.  Very few rural areas have written historical accounts or a dedicated ‘town’ museum.  Many rural communities once had vibrant churches which recorded much of the area’s history, but with many of these churches closing due to low attendance rates that recorded history is in jeopardy of being lost.

In the case of farming communities there are years of family history tied into the history of the land.  Looking at land registries and deeds of land can tell the story of a family.  For example, the original McCracken homestead owned by my family was traditionally passed down to the eldest son who then carried on the work on the farm.  However, if you look at nearby land records you can see that often the younger sons would buy farm land nearby, and continue to expand the family farm that way.

Stories of barn raisings, helpful neighbours plowing a field when someone’s tractor broke, and calf-cow picnics and many other stories make up the fabric of rural relations.  Oral histories can provide depth to otherwise forgotten relationships and connections.  Rural history definitely exists, one might just have to look beyond published sources to find it.

Quilts Galore

In my previous job as a Digitization Facilitator, for an OurOntario project, I had the opportunity to work with a number of great local history collections.  A few of these collections contained quilts made and donated by community members.  I was instantly impressed by the work and community memory contained in so many of these handmade quilts. A number of the quilts were done as community fundraisers or as keepsakes and have local family names stitched onto them – a great source for any local historian.

Since my first introduction to quilts in a historic context I’ve continued to be amazed by the work that goes into quilt making.  Some of my favourite quilts from museum collections include: 

From the Huron Shores Museum, a Pink and White fundraiser quilt.  Community members paid a small fee to stitch their name into the quilt.  Additional details for this quilt can be seen here.

Circa 1940

Detail of a section of the names on the quilt. 

An intricate scrap style quilt held by the McCord Museum.

Crazy quilt, M965.76.1 1897, made in 1897

The Castle Kilbridge National Historic Site has placed a virtual exhibit on the Virtual Museum of Canada which focuses on quilts given as wedding presents.  The quilt below is an example of the items contained in that exhibit.  

“Rising Sun,” made in 1885