To Do: Migrate

This presentation is part of the International Cemetery Preservation Summit, April 8-10, 2014 Niagara Falls, NY.

The Cycle of Use, Neglect, and Renewal in Historic Family Cemeteries of Niagara, Ontario by Catherine Paterson

Paterson: Thank you. I’m very excited to be here and to be speaking with you this morning. The focus of my talk is on the results of my Ph.D. research, looking at the family cemeteries of the Niagara Peninsula, so just the other side of the Niagara River on the Canadian side. These are cemeteries that were created by Loyalist settlers that started arriving in the region sort of late 1700s.

I’ll just go quickly over … When I started this research, it is a degree in archaeology, but I was quite interested in how historical cemeteries and monuments could be studied to address questions of historical change, historical processes. Because it was in the Niagara region, settled by Loyalists, I was quite interested to see if there were ways that people were using monuments and cemeteries that spoke to their experience as settlers and how that experience was remembered and portrayed by their descendants within the region.

My approach was very much just collect any and all information about these cemeteries that I could, and as a result, the results really range in scale. To be honest, and what people are probably going to be interested in, when I talk to them about it, sort of at the most basic narrowed-in level, looking at how families use these cemeteries, you get a really interesting family history in the differences in family decisions, circumstances, you know, from things ranging, you know, whether or not it was adult siblings that came and settled in the region and settled adjoining farms, whether you had families, you know, parents that came with babies or children that were too young to have their own farms. Ranging from that to how long on the farm till the first person died.

PatersonNCPTT_002There were factors along those lines that had a great deal to do with how people started using cemeteries, but then you get into an incredible range of variability in how people then started to use these cemeteries. Ranging from who was allowed to be buried there, who was excluded, how people negotiated as additional cemeteries were opened in the region, sort of negotiating the change, whether or not they reburied people from the farm to the new cemeteries. All of those kind of relationships, where there’s no one set pattern in terms of how families used these cemeteries. But when you take it back another level and look at it more regionally, there absolutely are patterns that emerge in how people were using these cemeteries and a fair amount to do with the creation of identity and the shared use of a place and making connections both to the family farm and to those family members who are buried there.

Then taking it even a step more broadly in terms of archaeological thinking, there’s absolutely a changing relationship between the living and the dead. Today I’m going to focus mainly on, I won’t get too into the family stories although those are sometimes pretty interesting, but I’ll focus on the conservation implications of some of these patterns that I was seeing in how people were using these cemeteries. They absolutely tie with the cycle of use, neglect, and renewal that was observed at the overwhelming majority of these cemeteries.

I will be the first to admit that my conservation training and work has greatly influenced my archaeological thinking regarding cemeteries and monuments. There’s definitely within the field of conservation the approach absolutely of the cemetery, what’s the history, what’s its place in the community to the people who have used it and then the people who are now living in the community. What are the circumstances of why it’s in need of whatever work it’s in need of today, and how does that all factor in to planning for the long-term care and best practices for that particular site?

In historical archaeology, that is not the approach that is generally taken, the focus is very much on the monuments as material culture. They tend to get measured a lot. Then the studies tend to focus on measuring a range of attributes and then giving a reason why those attributes changed over time. So the monuments got bigger over time and then they got smaller, because … There doesn’t seem to be much questioning of how do people use cemeteries to create history, what can we learn in cemeteries that isn’t recorded in any other source of information. That’s really where I was coming at, you know, the potential of cemeteries to contribute to historical discussion.

Very briefly, in terms of the methods and sample of what I did, there’s a great resource in Ontario through the Ontario Genealogical Society, and volunteers with this group have been transcribing not just family cemeteries but all cemeteries of Ontario since the 1970s. What’s really interesting in terms of, you know, my research that I could appreciate, was they would transcribe existing cemeteries. But then in the seventies and eighties, they interviewed a lot of farmers who had been living on the land for years, and then in their eighties or nineties, having remembered, oh, I dug a grave off in that farm, or we went to that funeral, or we picked up bones when I was a kid with my brother, this kind of thing. So there’s a fantastic resource of some of the sites that have been lost. Having visited as many of them as I could in 2010, 2011, there was also this fantastic resource regarding the ones, in some cases, knowing who was recorded as being buried there from records or Bibles, things like that, but no monuments left. I think those volunteers definitely shaved a couple of years off my own research, because I could start with what they had put together over the years.

What the research involved doing was visiting these cemeteries and basically again, collecting all information I could in terms of who was buried there, how were they commemorated. What quickly became apparent were all of these really fascinating more recent inclusions in the cemetery. You know, inactive cemeteries that haven’t seen burials in many generations, there are now new plaques, heritage signs, new monuments for people who had died long ago. There was a lot going on in these places that weren’t the direct commemoration of people at the time of death, but sort of this continued activity in the cemetery.

Gathering a range of information on the sites and then coming back and looking into the history of those families and starting with the landowning family, and through census, birth, marriage, death, land records, everything I could get my hands on, really coming up with that traditional family tree of parents and kids and all the marriages. But then add on the layer of, okay, these people are buried here, their kids are buried here, and then after a few generations, it just explodes into where everyone is being buried.

There’s quite a bit of information, that’s when all the really interesting family stories came out. Also, it was a way to track down people. When there’s the same surname, that was a really good starting point. But every now and then you get someone, just one person, one name, and you know, try and find out, in a lot of cases, they were farm workers. Sort of the grouping of neighboring families, intermarriage. So that’s really when I got into people’s business a little bit through the archives. Then that’s really what I based a lot of my patterns on, was combining the site survey and the archival research.

What this really then led to was this understanding of cemetery use over the generations and how people’s use and understanding of cemeteries changed that really leads to the topic, looking at the use, neglect, and renewal. I’ll just briefly go over these phases as they pertain to these family cemeteries. What’s really interesting for me in this earliest period, it’s probably the time period when there’s the least among of data to actually look at, but some really interesting patterns came out in terms of where people were selecting these cemeteries and how they got them up and running.

In cases where there were wills, or diaries, or letters, there were several instances of people selecting their cemetery location in term of places of meaning based on their experience on their new land, whether it was, “I’d like to be buried in the orchard that I planted.” Or there’s a great one, a husband and wife, when they first got their land, didn’t have a house, they slept among the trees, and that’s where they ended up putting the family burial ground. Whenever there was information on the decisions that people were making, there’s a great level of meaning and personal history for those people.

Any sort of write-up of Upper Canadian history usually gives a paragraph to family cemeteries and their place in the history of the region. It’s pretty much always the same paragraph that, they were in isolated areas, they were used because there were no other options, and as soon as other options were available, people abandoned them and they’re in really rough shape now. That quickly, I came to see that that was not the case. It was usually, whenever there were cemeteries on creeks, you’d get one bend, and here’s a family, and then the other bend, oh, there’s the branch of the other family. That’s not isolation or no other options. People were absolutely connecting to places with particular people of their choosing.

Also in this period, there were very few monuments for the generation of Loyalists themselves, likely not commemorated in a permanent way such as stone or not commemorated at all. Those that I did find, they’re very, very basic inscriptions, names, dates, no record of Loyalist identity. That’s in great contrast, there’s some churchyard cemeteries that were established about this same time period of the late 1700s, and there are monuments that will have the full inscription of, “This is the land I lost in the colonies, this is my military regiment that I fought in, this is the land down to lot and concession I got in Niagara, this is what happened in the War of 1812.” The full story is laid out in this, on the monument. So it’s a really interesting point to jump off, the differing use of public and private space, and what’s explicitly stated and what’s inherently created through use.

During this phase as well, in the mid-1800s, there was definitely then additional cemeteries that people had the option of using. The one absolutely overwhelming pattern is that of the ninety-eight cemeteries, the majority of them were inactive by 1900 as families opted to use public cemeteries. There are nine of the ninety-eight that have had a burial since 1950. I used that as a cut-off in terms of, well, if someone in their nineties was buried in the 1950, there’s a chance that someone’s still alive. For the most part, there haven’t been burials since the 1980s for quite a few of them.

What is also seen stemming from this period of inactive status is the overwhelming neglect of these cemeteries and not necessarily always in an intentional destruction, which there’s definitely examples of that, but there’s sort of the overwhelming majority is this passive neglect. Families move away, and when farms are divided and either sold off or retained as this one large parcel and passed onto one child, that really sort of limited, then you can see family cemetery use along that one lineage and the others moving on.

There were lots of factors at play in terms of what led to neglect. You can see overgrowth was probably one of the main ones that I saw in cemeteries that still have monuments, and many of the ones that, there are no monuments left, but there’s a sign. I have no idea how big that cemetery actually is, but that landowner is mowing it quite often. But there is a sign there, just saying, it’s the place of this burial ground. Again, a bit of a range of what’s seen in terms of this period of neglect.

Then, though you see beginning in the 1900s, and that’s when I referred to, you know, people starting to go back and add in monuments or add in history to these places, that’s when you start getting this Loyalist history very explicitly stated on signs, new plaques, sorry, new monuments, replica monuments, across the board. In some cases, it’s direct descendants who are involved and interested in getting this going; in other cases, it’s municipalities or a city has said, well, let’s mark all the pioneer families in the cemeteries and have driving tours. So there’s a range of motivations for introducing some of these heritage components.

What’s really interesting is that for most of these, and I should say, that the nine that are being used, or have been used since 1950, there are no, none of these heritage efforts going on in them, and they’re also fairly well maintained. This is really those that have been lost or neglected. What’s interesting from a conservation point of view is there’s usually no monuments to actually do any work with, because by the time the family comes back and reclaims the space, it’s gone to the point where, you know, someone else has been farming the land, and cleared out the monuments, lots of records of kids with target practice, lots of inventive things that removed the visibility of the monuments from the landscape.

You can see, I think two examples on the right are new monuments, there’s a new monument and a sign on the top, replacing all those that have been lost and recording the names of those buried there. What I find fascinating, the two on the left, all interventions assume that the original material culture is going to be lost. There’s replica monuments put up and everything else just sort of laid flat. My favorite, I think, is the boulder in the middle of a farm field that’s going nowhere for many, many generations.

It’s just a really interesting comment on, it’s maybe more a question of, as long as the visibility of these people’s identity is maintained, rather than the specific stone that was the original, you know, it’s really about, so many have been lost, it’s now a consideration to ensure that at least the identities of these people are not lost similar to so many others.

Bringing it back to conservation considerations, I mean, I really focused on in terms of monuments and cemeteries the cycle of use, neglect, and renewal. But thinking it about it archaeologically, and that relationship between the living and the dead, there’s absolutely larger social change going on that’s relating to the changing use of the space, to create connections to the family farm and to the family, and as that changes, there’s implications for the monument and cemetery condition and experience.

Examples of active destruction, families moving from the area, and more passive neglect.

Examples of active destruction, families moving from the area, and more passive neglect.

There’s a great example. In a public cemetery, there was a, well, a grandson buried sort of about 1860, his name, his dates, everything, and then when I looked around the back, it was his grandfather, and I recognized the name from a farm burial. I thought, oh, well, he’s commemorated in both places. On the farm, it’s his name, his dates, that’s it. On his grandson’s monument, in the public cemetery, again, it’s this full, I mean, he’d been dead for sixty, seventy years, but his grandson had decided to put the commemoration for this man, and again, laying out his military history, his land history, you know, very much presenting this history that, when people were buried with that group of people, that kind of interpretation, explicit display, wasn’t necessary because it was a social interaction and experience of place together at that place with that group of people, that really created the relationships between those people and that place.

Then just considering the implications of when a cemetery shifts, in these cases, family cemeteries, but you can also take it to sections of a larger cemetery as the plots fill up and the next section over starts to have the burials take place. The implications of shifting from active to inactive, and people’s experiences of that place, from no longer actually going there for burial and commemoration, you know, you visit for a while, but then now you’re maintaining or you move away. All of those kinds of things come into place. Then that cycles back again to once that connection is lost and that history that was created inherently, there’s something to going back, for both individuals, families, communities, going back to that space and explicitly creating it and maintaining it for generations down the line.

Now this cycle in terms of monument condition and cemetery care is absolutely seen in every kind of cemetery you could take a look at, from rural, urban, historical, and modern. Some of the implication from this research, not suggesting that everyone do a full regional study before any conservation of a single cemetery but again, just the consideration of the shift from active to inactive. Is there something about the connections that were being made and how people are maintaining it in different ways that can then be used in some way in the planning for the long-term care? If there are certain connections that were being made that have been lost, that could be considered by communities now.

Again, I butt heads with myself in terms of the missing components, because from a conservation point of view, it’s a shame to see monuments lost. But as an archaeologist, there’s a fascinating story in who goes missing, or who is not visible, never commemorated. In a lot of, well, not a lot, but in several Niagara family cemeteries, there is evidence that they were using First Nations burial grounds that were on the land that they had acquired, but that doesn’t come up in any of the twentieth century musings of the great family history on the land. So it’s interesting that way.

Again, the generation of Loyalists who are missing for a century from these cemeteries are then, begin to be introduced in the twentieth century. There’s an interesting story there, of why for a hundred years did all of those grandkids and grandkids and grandkids not have the motivation or the decision or the money, whatever reason, no one put up a monument until this particular time, and in this way that introduced history in a very specific way.

Then again, just some of the different, it’s definitely, I think, a bit more of challenge to explore some of the inherent connections and identity that’s created, but when you start to see history explicitly introduced by different groups, that’s something that can also hopefully be considered and incorporated into any planning.

Just to touch a little bit briefly too on the previous talk. There are absolutely circumstances relating to vandalism, repairs that don’t consider the historic fabric, and then maintenance and all kinds of cemetery plans that don’t consider the best practices for historical, whether it’s monuments, fences, the landscape, across the board. I’d just like to propose an additional factor is that changing relationship and how people are experiencing cemeteries that not necessarily allow for those less than sympathetic practices take hold. But there’s just, there’s another level going on in terms of how people are experiencing that place, and how that changes over time and how much of a story there is in how that happens for each specific cemetery.

I also want, I always, the farm dogs are a whole other presentation. I also just want to mention as an aside, if any of you are up in Ontario, in Guelph this summer, or would like to plan to come, there is a monument conservation workshop being held at Woodlawn Cemetery, and over two days, it’s focusing on the conservation principles and theory, but then also hands-on, repair techniques and materials. If you wanted to chat with me about that, or Tamara Hanson Cartwright is here as well, be happy to chat with you about that.

Thank you very much.



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.

Speaker Bio

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.

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