Every headstone tells a story in Halifax’s historic cemeteries
Halifax magazine, October 2009
By Marjorie Simmins
The young woman beams, spreads her arms wide to take in all the gravestones and says: “It’s an open-air art gallery!”
Alexandra Montgomery is a history student at Dalhousie University and mad-keen on the city’s history. She also has immense pride in the Old Burying Ground, the 0.9-hectare cemetery on the corner of Barrington Street and Spring Garden Road.
Don’t let its tiny size fool you. “There are more stories per square inch here than in most cemeteries,” she says. “It has the best-preserved collection of gravestones from the 18th century in Canada.”
The cemetery is modestly attended on this bright, cusp-of-autumn morning. A few people read or work on laptops, others wander, reading inscriptions. Montgomery has just concluded her lively tour of the cemetery. She has done what every good tour guide should do. She’s made this little-known parcel of land a place of wonder.
And rightly so. This isn’t just any cemetery; it is a National Historic Site, with a 250-year-old history. The Old Burying Ground began as a common burial ground when Halifax was founded in 1749. The first burial took place the day after it opened, on June 21.
Cemeteries are sacred spaces. In cities particularly, they are spaces of green open to the sky. In them, phrases such as “Rest in peace” make the full and comforting sense they are meant to.
“Twelve thousand people are buried here,” Montgomery tells me. Twelve thousand separate and precious lives. Over them stand 1,242 intact head and footstones.
The Old Burying Ground is non-denominational. Colonial officials granted it to St. Paul’s Church on Argyle Street, Canada’s oldest Anglican church, in 1793. The church, the Old Burying Ground Foundation and HRM (primarily tending the grounds) oversee the cemetery today. Student guides double as ambassadors for the cemetery and watch for damage. Earlier, Montgomery was disappointed to find new scrapings on a fragile tombstone. Workers made the tombstones from slate, ironstone and sandstone. Time has made them fragile-only professionals should touch the stones.
Vandalism and an uncertain future first brought the Old Burying Ground Foundation into being. Comprised of local church members and businesses, the Foundation formed in 1984, making a complete record of the site. This was followed by fund-raising, research and the implementation of a landscape plan.
Author and historian Deborah Trask elaborates. “A stone-by-stone assessment of the tombstones has been completed by restoration stonemason Heather Lawson,” she says. The Foundation hopes to oversee the professional “resetting” of fallen or tilting gravestones and remove and replace perished mortar, a process known as “pointing.”
The work takes time and money, though. “These restorations are very expensive,” says Trask. “We hope to keep up the public interest and awareness of the cemetery. This is why we have the student tour guides. We also count on them and the public to let us know about any damage to the gravestones.”
The graveyard ceased to be active in 1844, so its present company was assembled in just under 100 years. Its oldest marked grave (1752) belongs to two-year-old Malachi Salter Jr., of Halifax’s Salter (Street) family. One of the oldest people buried here is Katherine DeBlois, age 94.
The Old Burying Ground has an exceptionally rich and diverse collection of carved art on the gravestones. These include death’s-head skulls (representing mortality and penance), winged heads (signifying ascension), plus bones and skeletons (indicating decay). There is also an astrologer’s potpourri of stars, suns and moons. Respectively, they, represent divine guidance or creation, a soul rising to heaven and rebirth. Animals, flowers, trees, anchors, birds-many symbols with many meanings, not all agreed upon by scholars.
Some carved visages have an unexpected folk-art quality. Others, such as recumbent skeletons or skulls and cross-bones, verge on ghoulish. I admit to Montgomery a weakness for the “light bulb” (my phrase) death’s heads. And the live, resident crows.
For Trask, author of Life How Short, Eternity How long: Gravestone Carvings and Carvers in Nova Scotia, the artwork is all about the skill of the individual carver. She has her favourites. “There are three generations of Hay family carvers in the cemetery,” Trask says. These are James Hay, a Scottish patriarch, and his sons and grandson.
“James Hay carved the Adam and Eve gravestone,” she adds. This detailed work, done in 1796, illustrates Adam and Eve before and after the Fall of Man. “His work depicts the passing of time, and hopes for the hereafter.”
Trask also likes two gravestones carved by David Kinnear. One, an elaborately carved gravestone with Masonic symbols. The other, a touchingly worded gravestone Kinnear did for his own wife, with an urn on the top. Kinnear as retailer and as customer-another graveyard oddity.
The Old Burying Ground is but one of many historically significant graveyards in Halifax. Trask recommends the lesser-known Little Dutch Church Cemetery and the Naval Cemetery. Both require permission to view. Other taphophiles (people who love cemeteries) enjoy Fairview Lawn Cemetery, where over 100 victims from the Titanic rest, or Camp Hill Cemetery, where many of Nova Scotia’s elite are buried, including premiers Joseph Howe and Robert Stanfield, and brewer Alexander Keith.
For military enthusiasts, there is the Fort Massey Cemetery on Queen Street, a military burial ground dating back to the 1750s. And for Halifax’s many Irish descendants, there is much-loved Holy Cross Cemetery on South Park Street, best known for Our Lady of Sorrows-the “chapel built in a day,” raised by nearly 2,000 volunteers on August 31, 1843.
Why should we care about cemeteries? “Jane Irvin says the cemetery is a place of memoryÐa repository of community memory,” says Trask. In a review of Irvin’s 2007 book, Old Canadian Cemeteries, Places of Memory, Trask wrote: “Jane came to realize that a community without its cemetery is a community without its memory, whether or not the present living community has relatives buried there.”
Community memories are community stories, too. My student guide revels in the stories of the Old Burying Ground and recites them with gusto. Montgomery tells about James Bossom, whose gravestone baldly states that Smith D. Clark “willfully murdered” him. There is also William Bowie, the last man recorded to have died in a duel in Nova Scotia, killed by Richard Uniacke Jr. “This was a big trial,” Alexandra says. “Both Uniacke and the men’s ‘seconds,’ who egged them on to a second volley of shots, were charged.” In the end, Uniacke was acquitted; no doubt his father, the prosecutor, helped shape the outcome.
Finally, Alexandra reveals the graveyard’s “superstar,” Major General Robert Ross, whose forces burned Washington, D.C. in the War of 1812. Ross has a “box tomb”-a massive, raised, rectangular grave marker that even time, rains and Hurricane Juan didn’t budge.
“You can buy a bit of eternity,” I say to Montgomery.
She smiles, pats the top of the marker with affection.
Vibrant stories, exciting lives. As any student of history knows, you are only dead if your stories are forgotten. And your names. Each time Montgomery says a name aloud, death is pushed aside and life takes centre stage again.
A half hour later I am sitting on the stonewall on the opposite side of Spring Garden. Lunch is a sausage with mustard and hot pickles. Fellow lunch-eaters line the wall on either side of me. A pickle drops on my lap but I keep smiling as I think about the tour.
I hear a voice in my mind: You really love this city, don’t you, dear? Nice to see you so happy.
“Dad,” I say softly.
Just a few words this time, from somewhere behind my right ear. I never know when I’ll hear him next. I only know that I will. Beyond that, I can’t explain the gift of words and images that come to me from him and others. My father was 75 when we lost him, 10 years ago, on Guy Fawkes Day, November 5. Our family scattered his ashes in Ontario’s Rideau River.
James Bossom, Smith D. Clark, William Bowie, Katherine DuBois, young Malachi Salter, victorious Robert Ross-I saw your names, read your names, spoke your names…. yours too, Dad.
You are all remembered.