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).
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.
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!
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.