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.