Cemeteries, the silent historian
This is part 2 of a 7 part series
Cemeteries do indeed, silently document the past local histories and biographies. As William Dollarhide, notes, genealogists do make ancestral discoveries at cemeteries, and are not “obsessed with death, burials, or other ghoulish activities.” It is from the cemetery records or tombstone inscriptions that an ancestor can be located with certainty, unless there are no records, no tombstone erected or if the cemetery is unkempt. In Saskatchewan, it is invaluable to learn legal land nomenclature, the township, range and meridian survey system, to augment Global Positioning Systems (GPS), and view historical placenames in the vicinity of the cemetery. These placenames lead to compiled family histories published mainly for the 75th anniversary of the province (1980), however some books went to print in 1955 (50th provincial birthday) and others in 2005 (the 100th anniversary). These local history, family biography books contain a variety of records, cemetery history and occasionally the cemetery transcription as well. The imperative of keeping proper citations, digital records, differentiating between primary source and secondary source records is noted the book Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian written by Elizabeth Shown Mills for genealogists.
Locating homestead locations will help to ascertain the locale, city or rural municipality. Then the cemetery, funeral home, newspaper used for an obituary and death certificate fall into place. However cemetery and probate records may fall short if the ancestor decided upon cremation or drawing up a personal will. Sharon Debartolo Carmack delves into additional records of death such as “autopsy and coroners’ records, death certificates, obituaries, death notices, wills and probate, prayer and memorial cards and funeral home records, and mortality schedules.”
The practice of erecting a grave marker made of wood in the shape of a cross was erected to commemorate a grave site may have succumbed to one of the numerous prairie fires which historically ravaged the prairie grasslands in blazing sweeps hundreds of miles across. The lack of stone or permanent grave markers, erosion, surface land cultivation, landscaping, prairie fires, exodus of local families and the subsequent deterioration of community and services contribute to the neglect of a grave site, the location unknown to future generations. As John P. Nickel notes, “in the early days when there were no cemeteries, many burials were done in school yards, gardens or fields.” ” “When people died, they would essentially bury them there, wherever it happened, everywhere. There were no cemeteries,” said Germann in a CBC news report, “With settlement and erosion, these things get exposed.”
“Ever wonder what happens when a church closes, members move away, and a cemetery is left uncared for?” asks the Heritage Cemeteries Project. Unmarked cemeteries are particularly hard to find, and derelict abandoned cemeteries quite often have no burial register, cemetery plot map, death certificates, grave markers or other markers such as the case for Efremovka and Spasovoka Doukhovor Cemeteries. “In some cases, a burial spot may be an abandoned cemetery,” reports Colorado Cemeteries, “when the owners of the property have left the area, and the property is no longer the responsibility of anyone.”
Typically there are family cemeteries, church owned, private, national, city, town and municipal cemeteries. Cemeteries may have undefined property boundaries, no signage or access roadways creating difficulty when locating graveyards.
The dates of cemeteries can be reflected by the types of monuments demarking the grave sites. Tombstone markers have evolved from wooden markers, stone mounds or circles, sandstone slabs, marble stone work, granite tombstones and the contemporary polished granite and marble. Additionally, in a cemetery, there may be headstone, footstone, ground tablet, basal table grave, ruin, cross, pedestal obelisk, pedestal column, Funeral home plaque, or bedstead set in an urban, country, family, private, isolated or rural setting. Mausoleum architecture, be it Romanesque, Gothic Revial, or Art Deco, they, too, reflect time periods in history, social values and chronological trends.
From the inscriptions, the names and dates are vital to the genealogist assembling a family tree. Additionally, symbols, backgrounds, art, Religious iconography, accomplishments, commemorative items, epitaphs, carvings, and sentiments are recorded by those remembering their dearly departed. These symbols may indicate a social identity such as membership in organizations giving way to additional information and further genealogical research. Family burial plots show groupings or symbols indicated they are related in some way.
According to Robert Redfield, “acculturation” is the “phenomena which result when groups of individuals having different cultures come into continuous first-hand contact with subsequent changes in the original cultural patterns of either or both groups.” The adaptions of ethnic bloc settlements is evident in their burial customs, cemetery tombstone styles and the language chosen for the tombstone inscriptions.
Young pupils do not have to wait till University, they can be exposed to archaeological studies by visiting a cemetery and studying the culture of the community and the changes it its culture. Cemeteries tell the story of the deceased, those who mourned them, their views of death, and the society in which they lived.
Trends and customs in burial customs of ethnic, cultural and spiritual communities demark cemetery sections or complete graveyard styles of internment and tombstone design. Such was the case for Verna Elinor Gallén who detailed “variations in the expressions of social identity provided by the different Saskatchewan Finnish cemeteries” in Silence We Remember: The Historical Archaeology of Finnish Cemeteries in Saskatchewan. Noting the details of both tombstone and grave yard tells a story of communities in Saskatchewan, their growth and development, in times of sickness, war, and health.
- Part 1 Cemetery Preservation: Preserving Landscapes of Memories
- Part 2 Cemeteries, the silent historian
- Part 3 Archaeological Cemeteries
- Part 4 Recording and Memorialising
- Part 5 Cemetery Vacations
- Part 6 Save our Saskatchewan Cemeteries
- Part 7 Heritage Cemeteries listing
- Additional Resources
- American Cemetery Research Genealogy at a Glance by Sharon Debartolo Carmack
- Saskatchewan’s Historic Cemeteries. Cemetery Monument Conservation: – National Park Service (bibliography with an emphasis on stone)
- Cryptic Clues in the Bone Yard by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack
- Stories in Stone: The Complete Guide to Cemetery Symbolism by Douglas Keister
- Landscapes of Memories A Guide for Conserving Historic Cemeteries: Repairing Tombstones, written by specialists in masonry conservation
- Michigan historic cemeteries preservation guide by Gregg King, Susan Kosky, Kathleen Glynn, Gladys Saborio, Michigan Historical Center.
- Municipal Designation of Cemeteries and Historic Places Initiative by Heritage Foundation of Canada
- Mortuary Monuments and Burial Grounds of the Historic Period: A Guide for Conserving Historic Cemeteries By Harold Mytum
- Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records edited by Kory L. Meyerink
- Read Before You Leap ~ SAPIC Cemetery Preservation Library of Essential Information (Bibliography)
- Your Guide to Cemetery Research by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack
- Stories in Stone: The Complete Guide to Cemetery Symbolism by Douglas Keister
Links to sources are embedded in text above.
Redfield, Robert, Ralph Linton and Melville J. Herkovits
1936 Memorandum for the Study of Acculturation. American Anthropologist 38(1):149- 152.
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