At the back of Orangeville's Greenwood Cemetery is a sad group of forgotten gravestones. In the bush, down a dirt path, behind where the cemetery staff dump the old dirt and branches, at the edge of the fence line can be found several graves and markers that are hidden from view. Do the cemetery staff even know these are here? The main cemetery is active, but these abandoned graves may date from a time before the large graveyard was even in place. From what I can read on the weathered and broken old gravestones, it appears that they are from the 1850s. Some are broken, some covered n moss, some are standing upright and in decent condition, all in a row, not as though they where simply discarded here, but lovingly placed here a long time ago. What ever became of the families whose ancestors rest hidden in the forest? Very curious why these poor forgotten souls have been lost over the years.
News story by Chris Halliday, that appeared in the Orangeville Banner, May 28, 2012.
When Sean White was searching for a prospective grave plot for himself at Greenwood Cemetery last Thursday (May 24), the Orangeville man was surprised by what he found.
Searching the cemetery lands, White went a little bit off the beaten track and followed the dirt road at the western edge of the cemetery into the nearby woods. As the sun shone through the trees, White saw the silhouette of several tombstones standing along the property's fence line.
Upon closer inspection, White discovered about 15 tombstones — some standing, others toppled, and several crumbled or broken. Many of them weren't legible, but of the ones that were, epitaphs like “Susan C. Chaffen died June 22, 1855”, “John Merryweather died Aug. 7, 1857 aged 38. Native of Yorkshire, England”, and “Sarah wife of James Conley died Oct. 11, 1853”, among a few others, could be made out.
“They're from the 19th century,” White said. “I have to let somebody know about this. ... The forgotten grave of the 19th century.”
They're not quite forgotten, but “unaccounted for” would be a more accurate description, explained Steve Brown, archivist for the Dufferin County Museum & Archives (DCMA). While it is unlikely their bodies were buried there, how did their headstones get placed on the forested perimeter of Greenwood Cemetery?
“How much of a story do you want?” Brown laughed. “There is a bit more to it than just an old headstone.”
The story starts in the late-1800s when Orangeville had three graveyards — the Bethel Presbyterian Church and Cemetery where the post office is today, St. Mark's Anglican Burying Ground on Broadway and the Methodist Church and Cemetery on the south side of Church Street.
By the mid-1870s, those burial grounds were full, and townspeople were suspicious about the impact those bodies might have on their drinking water.
“They thought there might be body water seeping into their well water,” Brown said. “We'll just leave it at that.”
As a result, town council appointed a committee to look at available land outside the town limits for a new cemetery. In 1876, it created the Orangeville Cemetery, which is now known as Greenwood Cemetery. It was only the second publicly owned cemetery in Ontario, Brown noted.
Not everybody agreed with the site chosen. Another group of citizens bought a piece of property on the north side of Orangeville, what is known as the Forest Lawn Cemetery today. Given society's panic the bodies in those existing cemeteries were polluting well water, the town unearthed its dead and moved them into those two new burial grounds.
That wasn't completed, or so many thought, until about 10 years later, Brown said.
Here is where it comes back to the tombstones near the back of Greenwood Cemetery. With no family left in or around Orangeville to buy plots for those dead people, the 15 stones were just placed there.
“When they think they've got most of the bodies out of the cemetery, there is still some left, some old headstones around, unaccounted for bodies,” Brown said. “There are no burials back there. They're just sort of the extra headstones from moving all these extra bodies around.”
When the town's public works department took over maintenance of the graveyard in 1953 — it had owned the cemetery since 1876 — the headstones were lying in a pile at the back, according to Doug Jones, Orangeville's managing director of environmental and development services. Since the cemetery's archives were destroyed in a fire in 1928, however, the town had no record as to which headstones were associated with what graves.
“They put those headstones up at the back,” Jones said. “If a resident or relative came by and recognized a stone and said that should be on this grave or that grave, then perhaps we could put them back.”
That hasn't happened yet, and if you ask Jones, it's unlikely to ever happen. Nearly six decades have passed, and nobody has stepped forward yet.
“It is unfortunate,” Jones said. “I have a hard time envisioning a set of circumstances where people are going to come with evidence and say this one belongs to this grave.”
While he is fairly certain nobody is buried below those headstones, Brown said history shows the town was unable to unearth all of its dead from 1876 to 1886. When the new post office was built in 1963, construction came to a halt when bones were found.
“They said, ‘Oh yeah, this was the old cemetery',” Brown said. “So, they didn't get them all.”
White feels something should be done to ensure the headstones survive heavy snowfalls or storms of the future. Of the few left standing, he noted several already appear angled enough to fall to the ground.
“It's just a matter of time and they'll all be busted,” White said. “It'd be a shame to lose them.”
Even if the headstones aren't located in the exact spot these people were buried, the 15 bodies lost in the Orangeville cemetery shakeup of the late-1800s still have monuments to prove their existence.
“It is kind of a sad story in a way. On the other hand, it does find out the importance of having a headstone,” Brown said. “Even though they're not sure exactly where you're buried, they know you existed.”