… and a little bit more

For the past three months, we have learned a great deal about cemeteries. Our manager, Paul, is always eager to tell us everything he knows about the history of our cemetery and others around London, local historians such as Catherine McEwen and Dan Brock are eager to share their expertise on Middlesex County stonecarvers, and the librarians, archivists, and others working in the many libraries and archives we have visited alway seem pleased to see us and interested in our latest research. Everyone we have encountered has been extremely helpful in providing information and support in our efforts to uncover more and more Woodland Cemetery history.

As stated in the last blog post, Woodland was forced to move twice due to city expansion. Originally it was a church graveyard, but because it became overcrowded, a park-style cemetery was established outside city limits, where it was eventually overtaken by building and moved again to Woodland Park. These park-style cemeteries originated in Britain and were quickly picked up in the United States and Canada as well. Mourning was in fashion in the Victorian age, Queen Victoria’s mourning of her husband for much of her life influenced the way people thought of death and dying. Beautiful stone tablets were created as memorials for deceased loved ones and elaborate mourning customs were established to celebrate the dead. Death was romanticized, and was viewed as a natural part of life for the Victorians (see references to Victorian post-mortem photography). Cemeteries reflected this. While cities expanded and land within city limits became more desirable for living space, cemeteries were moved outside of cities to large parks for space and beautiful surroundings.

Queen Victoria in mourning clothes

A few park-style cemeteries in England eventually became run down and repurposed into open spaces for the public. Gravestones were taken down or demolished and most signs that a cemetery was ever present vanished.

MS 421_6_1_5 Photograph of Leeds General Cemetery 1962
Leeds General Cemetery in disrepair. Leeds, England.
Woodhouse Cemetery in St George’s Field at the University of Leeds.


Woodhouse Cemetery at the University of Leeds is a strange place. If one visits, it does not seem like a cemetery at all. The original stones that survived the area’s transformation are placed along a short path near one of the entrances and placed close together. The tiles that make up the walk way around the cemetery’s original chapel list the names of people who are buried in the field, with anywhere from one to around twenty on each stone. In the image above, you can see there is writing on the path (people’s names).

The Victorian cemetery allowed for people to openly celebrate the beauty of death. They would take picnics to the cemetery, visit their deceased loved ones, and make a day of it. They showcased the art of the day and popularized the idea of public parks for socializing and relaxing. They served as a beautiful quiet space inside of rapidly expanding, industrializing, and dirty cities.

However, the First World War ended this desire for park-style cemeteries. Death was no longer celebrated as young men died by the thousands, and death became viewed as more brutal, terrifying, and unknown. Cemeteries became quieter places, the sheer volume of deaths taking place during the war caused thousands of monuments to be erected in cemeteries to commemorate the brave sons, fathers, brothers, and husbands who fought for their country. Stones lost their unique artistry as death became less personal. Mourning became more private and with that, personality left the cemeteries.

A war cemetery at Vimy Ridge in France.

A little bit on cemeteries…

For the final blog post of the week, I thought I would talk a little about the history of cemeteries. Since we work in one, it seemed overdue that we talk a little bit about the history of cemeteries in London as well as Woodland Cemetery in particular. There is a fantastic short history of Woodland Cemetery written by Levi a couple years ago that gives a brief overview of the movements of St Paul’s Cemetery from 1849 until the mid-1880s when the graves were settled in their final resting places.

Now, this summer has been quite the learning experience for me, as I have discovered a great deal about the history of London. Our team has had several visits from local historians, and our boss, Paul, is extremely knowledgable about much of London’s exciting history. The 1832 Cholera Epidemic – while the mortality rate was not exceptionally high, Londoners such as Dr Elam Stimson (mentioned in a previous blog post), lost loved ones and suffered through the epidemic as London was still a small, but growing city. The 1874 Komoka Train Fire, where a train car caught fire on its way from London to Sarnia. We only discovered this disaster as a memorial stone for two of the victims of the fire is located in Woodland and somewhat describes the incident (the rest of the story had to be researched from the Komoka Railway Museum’s website, but as someone who loves to learn about trains, this was no issue for me).19911695_10209276870215330_1580958185_o

The Victoria Day Disaster in 1881, when a steamship carrying 650 passengers capsized in the Thames and over 180 died in the disaster, many of whom were buried at Woodland Cemetery. Severe natural disasters, the Deluge of London West in 1883 and the Great Flood of London (1937) and fatal building collapses speckle London’s rich history and traces of them and their impacts can be seen at Woodland. While these stories are all extremely interesting and tragic, one can’t help but ask what these disasters have to do with cemeteries. Cemeteries are the resting places of the victims of these kinds of disasters. Through mourning practices of the time period, historians and the public can glean an idea of what life was like in different eras,

Cemeteries and the burial and mourning of the dead are centuries-old traditions that develop differently around the world based on available resources, religion, and cultural practices. We know of many burial practices for the ‘rich and famous’ of the ancient world. From mummification, and the great pyramids in Egypt and all the treasures they hold, the Terracotta Army protecting Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang in the afterlife, and the Mausoleum of Augustus, which houses many Roman Emperors.

In the late-Medieval and early modern period, we come across many more elaborate and fantastical monuments and burial tombs for the prosperous. Westminster Abbey, the Taj Mahal, and more modern cemeteries such as the Arlington National Cemetery, house royals, government figures, and other prominent societal figures. But what about the common people?

Also known as “grave fields”, prehistoric cemeteries varied based on geography, and the religion and culture of the society. The ancient pagans used many of the same burial rituals, such as burial mounds, shaft tombs, and cremation.

bahrain burial
Ancient burial mounds in Bahrain, photographed in 1956. From http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/31/world/meast/in-bahrain-development-chips-away/index.html

The Zoroastrians in Persia used ossuaries, often stone boxes where the remains of loved ones would be interred after they had decomposed, in order to preserve burial space. Over time, these ossuaries evolved to become much more elaborate (see the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic).

Much of the following information about Woodland Cemetery can be found in a wonderful brochure created by Levi, which I would highly recommend! Woodland Cemetery was not established until 1879, but we have graves from many years prior to the opening of the cemetery. These older graves comes from St Paul’s Cemetery, which was originally located right on the church’s grounds. In 1849, it was determined that the cemetery and all of its contents should be moved outside of town limits to where the Western Fairgrounds are today. It is also interesting to note that a cemetery located in a church yard is more commonly referred to as a graveyard and that a cemetery not within a church’s yard cannot be a graveyard (all graveyards are cemeteries but not all cemeteries are graveyards). The movement of many of the graves was due to overcrowding within the downtown area of London (the desire to allocate space for the living rather than the dead), and sanitation issues. Having water for city inhabitants running through a graveyard would be damaging to the health of people and could cause dangerous outbreaks of disease. So it was decided that they would be moved far outside of town limits where St Paul’s had purchased land for this purpose. The cemetery continued to function much like the cemeteries of the time. It had family lots for purchase and a Potter’s field, for those unable to purchase lots themselves. However, within 30 years, the city’s expansion overcame the new cemetery and St Paul’s looked to the west end of the city to build their new cemetery. In 1879, they purchased the land where Woodland stands today, established their Victorian park-style cemetery, and moved all the graves from the Western Fairgrounds, which took six years to complete!

A streetcar on the Springbank Line c.1896. Woodland Cemetery is located on the right and the Thames River is on the left. Photo is from the London Room at London Public Library.

This all seems fairly ridiculous to us now. How could they keep moving a cemetery, filled with hundreds of bodies and gravestones to each new plot of land without missing any? They didn’t! Gravestones break in transit, particularly the tall, flat gravestones of the Victorian age, keys (the bottom part of the grave that goes into the ground and keeps the actual stone upright) were often taken and repurposed, leaving stones lying flat on the ground over the burial. Bodies were missed, stones misplaced, but it is still quite impressive that they moved so many without the technology and machinery we have today.

In the Victorian Era, mourning practices were extremely important. Queen Victoria herself had inspired a certain style for commoners in her realm to follow; wearing black, sombre gatherings, and the commissioning of detailed, personalized monuments for the dead gained popularity among the people of London, Ontario. The end of the American Civil War in the 1860s and the completion of the railroad in the late-nineteenth century allowed for more sturdy material to be brought in for building gravestones. Marble came in from quarries in Vermont, largely replacing the older sandstone gravestones as it was less likely to erode and break, and was more aesthetically pleasing.

This post is becoming a little bit long and I wanted to include more about the week we had so I will have to conclude the history of cemeteries another week. Stay tuned!

This week was much of the same, but the poor weather conditions prevented us from mortaring and gluing stones. So we had a couple of research days and did what we could at the cemetery, cleaning and using putty to seal multi-level monuments back into place. We also got to visit the Museum of Ontario Archeology on Wednesday, which was a great deal of fun! We spoke to the archeology summer campers and got to tell them all about tombstone archeology. The campers had a lot of really good questions and they were a great audience!

I came across an interesting article while researching cemeteries, so if you’re interested in reading up on pet burials, here is a short article on interesting cases of animals being given ritualistic burials.

One more week to go!

Just over a week until we welcome visitors to Woodland Cemetery for our Canada 150 Walking Tour!

This morning we set up our GIANT promotional signs for the walking tour and the memorial trees. The first one took some time, but with teamwork and collaboration, we managed to put it together and stand it up near the front gate of the cemetery. The second one was much easier.

Our week was slow. Monday was hot, we worked on the limestone sandbox that will display the Scottish Cemetery stones, and we had visitors from St Andrew’s Parish come visit us in the afternoon! They were very interested in our work and we loved seeing them here, showing them our progress and discussing our future plans for the memorial!

We were absent from Woodland on Tuesday (due to our convocation at Western University). Wednesday was our most exciting day. We welcomed a group of children to our work site and told them all about our work. They even uncovered and cleaned a gravestone themselves! They were so wonderful to have here! We joined them on their Victoria Day Disaster Tour, where one of the children gave a wonderful summary of the event! Levi was of course also a fantastic guide and told us all about some of the people we have at Woodland who died in the disaster. It was very informative and interesting.

We have finally put together the script for the walking tour so we will be working tirelessly all next week in order to memorize the information for all of our visitors on June 24th! Please come out for a day full of London history: the every-men, the dramatic, and the scandalous. Hopefully it’ll be nice, but not too hot!

Victorian Monument Symbolism: Expressions Carved in Stone

As you’ll notice if you’ve ever visited Woodland, or if you attend our public walking tour on June 24th, our older sections are filled with break-taking monuments. Many of them are hand-carved, and feature statue work and meaningful symbols along with beautifully engraved scripture or poetry.

When I first started working here, my boss alerted me to the fact that what a Victorian era family chose to put on a monument was never a mistake. Rather, the Victorians were fixated on symbolism, and when they erected a gravestone for a loved one, they wanted to make sure it reflected something of that person’s disposition, their career, their relationships, or their life. Because these stones were rather expensive, and space was precious, this unique expression was often accomplished through symbols that other members of society would be able to recognize. Nowadays, though we still retain some cultural knowledge of these, we often have no idea the intricate meanings that these stones were meant to convey.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been doing some research on Victorian monument symbolism, and thought I’d share some of it in a blog post so that you can identify these stones for yourself while you’re out on the grounds!


Urns and Shrouds

Ripley, Urn with Shroud (Sec R).jpg

People weren’t really cremated in Victorian times, so why have an urn on top of your gravestone? It was actually a reference to ancient Greek and Roman cultures, who did cremate their dead. Victorians used this symbolism to represent that they were in tune with the Classics, which were exceedingly popular at the time, thereby letting the world know that they were cultured and knowledgeable. These urns sometimes have shrouds laying overtop of them, which represent the “veil” that exists between the world of the living and the world of the dead.



Columns were also a nod to the Greeks – this time to their architecture. Columns were a symbol of strong support, which in Victorian times usually denoted the head of the household – a father or husband who supported his family. Columns on gravestones are often purposefully broken, as this symbolises that the life of this support was cut short suddenly or too soon. Columns can be broken at the top, as shown in the picture, or lying on their side in two pieces.


Hands Clasped

Allen Lot - Hands shaking.jpg

People holding hands is one of my favourite pieces of symbolism, as there is so much to read into it. They represent a married relationship (or another close, unified relationship – family or friend) that has had to end due to death. The “hand-shake” on the stones can depict a last farewell, but more often it depicts someone who has died first leading another person to heaven when they die. You can sometimes tell the gender of the person by the cuffs on their sleeves: keeping with the dress of the time, men wore straight cuffs and women wore lace or puffed ones. If a straight cuffed arm is clasping from behind, it likely means that a husband, who died previously, is leading his wife to join him in the afterlife.


Hands Pointing Upward

Ford mon. hand pointing to heaven.jpg

Hands that point up symbolize that the deceased has ascended to Heaven, and has received their final reward for a life well lived. It serves as a confirmation of life after death for the faithful. They are one of the most popular symbols depicted on our monuments here at Woodland. (Note: don’t worry if you see a hand pointing down, it doesn’t mean the deceased as gone… well… not to Heaven. Rather, the inversion of this symbol means that the deceased is pointing down from above).



Portraiture on gravestones is usually used to depict a likeness of the deceased, which is really neat because we get a glimpse into what these people looked like before cameras were widely available. Families often put portraits on stones if a person died in their youth, so that their youthfulness would be forever preserved.



Gorman scroll, rolled both ends.jpg

The scroll is a symbol of life and time unfolding. If a scroll is rolled up at both ends on a monument, it marks the beginning and ending of a life. Scrolls are also a nod to honour and commemoration, and can also symbolise Biblical scripture or ancient texts.



Roses usually adorn the graves of young women, and they dually represent heavenly perfection and earthly passion. If the rose is broken, it indicates the deceased’s age: a broken bud means the girl was under 12 years old when she died; a partial bloom represents death during teenage years; a full bloom represents someone in the prime of their life. Joined or intertwined rosebuds depicts a bond between mother and child – if you see these, it may mean a mother who died in childbirth which, unfortunately, was all too common in the 1800s.



These symbols usually depict someone who hailed from Scotland – we’ve been uncovering lots of these lately!



Lamb on Pedestal.jpg

Lambs always mark the grave of a small child. The ancient Egyptians first connected the lamb with purity and innocence, and it’s a symbol that has been carried forward into Christian practice as it is linked to Jesus Christ as a shepherd. These stones are often small and low to the ground, so keep an eye out for them!



Young lot - Dove.jpg

Doves symbolize the Holy Spirit, purity, and devotion (often between married couples). Many also associated the dove with peace, as we do today. If the dove is depicted as flying on the monument, it is thought to be carrying the deceased’s soul to heaven.




Many people mistake this for a “money sign” – but what is it really? It’s actually an anagram of the letters IHS, which stands for Iesus Hominum Salvator – Jesus the Savior of men. It was a sign of membership to the Christian faith.


Open Books

Open books usually represent scholastic knowledge (someone who was a devoted intellectual) or scripture (someone who was a faith leader in the community). The book being open represents this person’s openness to knowledge or the word of God. This symbol is also connected with good deeds the deceased may have done being recorded in the mythical “Book of Life.”


Masonic Symbols

You’ll see lots of fraternity symbols on our monuments here, but by far the most common are Masonic symbols. They represent freemasonry, an organization of stone masons which has its origins in the late 14th century.


Woodsmen of the World

Woodsman of the World.jpg

These ones are particularly rich with meaning, and we have a few of them on the grounds. The Woodsmen of the World was a brotherhood and insurance company that had as its members people who worked dangerous physical jobs (like lumberjacks and fishermen). When insured men died (on the job or otherwise), the company would pay for a monument in the shape of a tree trunk, which represented equality and craftsmanship. Interestingly, each of these stones was personalized for the person it memorialised – someone who worked at sea might have an anchor on their stone, and someone who worked in the forest might have a saw. All of the monuments include the WMotW crest, and their motto dum tacet clamet, which means “though silent, he speaks”.


I hope next time you’re out on Woodland’s grounds you can find some of these symbols for yourself, and perhaps gain some insight into the lives that they memorialize from a century ago!