Being a tombstone tourist sounds pretty ghoulish doesn’t it? But if you are a genealogist, or a local history buff like myself, you are going to spend a lot of time wandering local cemeteries. I find myself wondering about the stories behind the graves as well- every person counts in my mind as they were part of the community. When I was a young girl my Mother was in the hospital most of the time, but when she wasn’t she had my Father drive us to all the cemeteries in Brome-Missisquoi in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. After all, to her they were kind of like parks without the crowd
Bernice Ethylene Crittenden Knight wanted me to know who I was related to, and even those that I wasn’t related too. She told me that a cemetery can tell you about a culture and history of an area and she was right. At that age I wasn’t totally enamoured of the idea, and constantly worried what my black patent Mary Jane shoes were walking on. Rural cemeteries became the poor person’s art gallery, offering carvings, statues, and buildings of spectacular local craftsmanship.
She always pointed out the symbols of flowers on the gravestone, which were known to have their own language. A rose could signify love, or friendship, and it could also mean innocence or secrecy. There were many roses in the cemeteries she took me too due to early death during childbirth, or unwanted or secret pregnancies. Calla Lilies represent marriage and fidelity and a Lily of the Valley signified innocence, humility and renewal. Speaking of flowers; my late sister Robin in later years horrified us all one day when she gathered up all the flowers in the United/Union Church Cemetery and sold them to folks living on Dieppe Blvd. We were number one on the gossip sheet for weeks.
Did you know that a cemetery was one of the first places where upper and middle-class Victorian women could wander unchaperoned and unmolested? After cemeteries became fashion in the 1830s they were thought to be extensions of the home (of which women were the chatelaines and guardians, of course), and hence an appropriate place for women to attend at their leisure. Women took full advantage of this freedom, and frequently walked and talked with their friends as they would in an ordinary public park, without worrying that men would bother or accost them. My Mother never thought about these rules of the past, she just thought it was a great place to picnic while my Dad sat in the car refusing to venture in.
I love a good wander around a cemetery. I like reading the headstones and thinking about who that person was. That person was so important to somebody that they were commemorated for hundreds of years– similar to the funerals beforehand. Did you know that a funeral was so costly but so important, that lower class families often went without the necessities of life because the family refused to spend their funerary funds on things like food, clothing, and shelter? How could parents starve their children to ensure that they could bury them? That was because families who were unable to provide for a proper funeral and burial of their loved ones were forced to rely on the local powers to be who would provide the bare minimum in burial – a pauper’s funeral.
There were lots of Irish where I came from and their funeral customs probably came over from Ireland with the waves of Irish who came to work as labourers. The Irish certainly had and have many funeral customs and superstitions about death. Irish wakes sometimes became so rowdy that the corpse was taken out of the box and dragged around the dance floor. When I went to funerals as a young gal the open casket was in the middle of the community hall. Cases of beer filled the hall along with square dancing in front of the coffin until the time of burial.
At any rate, what I was taught among other things was that you should wear black to visit the cemetery. You should appear as a “shadow” rather than a body so the dead person’s spirit won’t enter your body. Oh boy….
One of my favourite flowers Lily of the Valley grew everywhere among the headstones, and after my Mother died they sent home her blue Samsonite suitcase. When I opened it a bottle of her favourite perfume Coty’s Lily of the Valley had broken inside. For years, each time I opened that suitcase, I relived the rare hours spent with my Mother, and remembered how she spoke of that flower representing innocence, humility and renewal on the tombstones. That is how I try to live my life before I become one of those names of a tombstone.
Charles Neville Ross Here’s one. There were a couple of grave diggers hand digging a new burial plot in one of the cemeteries in Sherbrooke. a couple of mischievous kids crawled up on them to scare them. When they popped out from behind and adjacent head stone the both of them ran away so fast they left their shoes behind. My Dad swore it really happened.
Come and visit the Lanark County Genealogical Society Facebook page– what’s there? Cool old photos–and lots of things interesting to read. Also check out The Tales of Carleton Place and The Tales of Almonte
Information where you can buy all Linda Seccaspina’s books-You can also read Linda in The Townships Sun Screamin’ Mamas (USA) and The Sherbrooke Record