As mentioned in the first blog post of the summer, my research will focus on the city burial grounds of Woodland Cemetery from the mid- to late-nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. My findings will then be translated into a walking tour that will take place at the beginning of July. The city burial areas of the cemetery have had a few different names including “pauper’s graves,” “potter’s fields,” and “poor grounds,” all of which reflect a rather stigmatized society. Again, these graves would have been the resting places of those who could not afford or were deemed unworthy of a proper Christian burial. We can find those who died by suicide, those whose professions were untraditional or lack-lustre (read: sex workers and labourers), or those who were detained at the Asylum buried here. When I write, “find,” it is important to note that we truly do have to search for these people. Their markers are often covered by the earth or completely nonexistent. Hannah and Rachel, our Monument Conservators, are tasked with probing the grounds and lifting up any stones that they might find beneath the surface before cleaning and re-placing them. Even our archival records show little evidence of these burials beyond their scribbled names.
Given that most burials at the time followed an elaborate Victorian tradition, where intricate monuments and flamboyant ceremonies memorialized loved ones, the city burial grounds provide a stark contrast. The stones that we do find are plain, showing only a name and date of death sans decorative furnishings or carved details. If we consider the social and political climates of the 1800s these findings, or lack there of, are expected. It was not uncommon for a family to banish a member for their shameful “insanity” or for their crimes, leaving that person without any next-of-kin. We should keep in mind that abandonment and banishing, of course, are not the case for all city burials at the time and there is no universal narrative that can speak for each person or family. Sometimes, the city would bury a person who had immigrated to Canada without any friends or family, someone who started a new life by themself here in London.
A difficult task that I have encountered in my research is determining which people to feature on our walking tour. Since there is a lack of information about most of the people who were given city burials, it is tough to determine an all-inclusive story. We do have records of a man who was charged on multiple accounts for physically and emotionally abusing his partner. He is one of the few people on my list that have extensive records. The question is, do we want to feature someone who acted so aggressively simply because he is the only person about whom we have lots of information? How do we tell the stories of these “paupers” without romanticising crime and violence? Should a “full story” include the dark sides of humanity? Perhaps more productive would be to tell the story of his wife. This way, we can lessen the margin for victimization in order to present a more supportive recounting of events. We could also use this man’s story as representative of a bigger picture, one that promotes healthy relationships and resilience. At the end of the day, regardless of his crimes, the man of this story was someone who fell to the human condition of imperfection. He is still worthy of acknowledgement and remembrance. No matter which way we decide to present our research, the stories of the city burial grounds are going to be difficult to tell, but I look forward to investigating everything that makes London’s history so rich. I encourage you to also think about how we determine which memories are preserved and how we go about doing so.
If you have any input or suggestions that could help me in my research, I invite you to leave a comment!