This presentation is part of the International Cemetery Preservation Summit, October 8-10, 2014 Niagara Falls, NY.
The Cycle of Use, Neglect, and Renewal in Historic Family Cemeteries of Niagara, Ontario by Catherine Paterson
The results of the archaeological study of 98 family cemeteries of the Niagara region of Ontario provide great insight into the experience of settlers and their descendants over several generations. This insight spans the historical use of cemeteries as places of burial and commemoration, the later widespread neglect of family cemeteries once they became inactive, and the more recent period of creating connections to these cemeteries in new ways through heritage interpretations.
Created on family farms in the early 19th century by Loyalist settlers arriving from the American colonies, private family cemeteries and the monuments within them were used to create identity and visible history in a new place. Family cemetery use was highly variable during the transition to the use of public cemeteries as they became established. Following a period of decreasing use, all but six cemeteries were closed by the early 20th century. Most of these cemeteries were neglected once inactive, in some cases passively, and in others with clear evidence of intentional destruction. While at least 30 family cemeteries have been completely removed from the landscape, others have since been reclaimed by descendants and heritage groups through the introduction of new monuments and interpretive signs, and changes to the remaining historical monuments.
Archaeological studies commonly focus on historical cemeteries as places of memory, but less consideration has been given to the role of forgetting and its link to cemetery and monument neglect. The results of this research indicate that memory and forgetting in historical cemeteries are connected and together inform an understanding of a site’s history. The aim of this presentation is to discuss the implications of these results for the conservation of historical cemeteries, specifically relating to the cycle of use, neglect, and revitalization.
In Niagara, the three phases of this cycle are clearly visible in the various ways that the generations of a family created, maintained, or lost connections to the dead, their ancestral place of burial, and more specifically to the grave monuments that serve as long-term and visible markers of memory. While in use, family cemeteries were places where burial and commemoration created inherent connections to family, place, and history. Later generations who began using public cemeteries did not share the same experience of the family cemetery and gradually lost the various connections to the dead that were inherently created when burial and commemoration were on-going. A century after family cemeteries were first used, descendants who have revitalized cemeteries visibly introduce connections in cemeteries and often make explicit the family history and identity that were previously implicit.
Ultimately, it is useful to consider the changing experience of the cemetery landscape by different generations and how their experiences in turn shaped what is visible, or not visible, today. For example, the understanding of cemetery and monument neglect is often focused on vandalism, cemetery “clean-ups” that were popular in the mid-1900s and included the removal of broken or damaged monuments, or cemetery maintenance practices that do not recognize or address the long-term conservation requirements of historical monuments. While all key factors in understanding the current condition of a cemetery, the results of this research highlight the changing relationship between the living and the dead as an additional factor to be considered.
Catherine recently defended her PhD in Anthropology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario and has experience in monument conservation and repair and cemetery research and documentation. For five summers she has worked at Woodlawn Memorial Park in Guelph to learn and apply the principles and methods of monument conservation and also completed the masonry conservation course at the Willowbank School of Restoration Arts. Catherine holds a monument inspection contract with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as part of the Canada Remembers Grave Tracking Program and has recently completed a conservation plan for a historical cemetery for the Town of Lincoln.