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Headstones mark our history
Posted 1 year ago
By Harold Carmichael

The Sudbury Star

Saturday, October 7, 2006


It’s a good bet the average Sudburian has visited at least one sometime.

It’s hard not to miss some of them, especially the very large one on

the west end of Lasalle Boulevard and the old-looking ones at the

intersection of Regent and Lorne Streets.


They are Greater Sudbury’s cemeteries, the places where more than

88,000 area residents now rest.


While most people are aware of highly visible cemeteries such as

Eyre, Lasalle Roman Catholic, and Civic Memorial on Second Avenue,

Greater Sudbury is actually home to about two dozen cemeteries.

Some of those cemeteries are historical ones with the last burials

occurring several decades ago.


On Skead Road in Garson, there is a small cemetery with about 30

graves that was almost lost to nature. Overrun by trees and grass

some 15 years ago, the Good Shepherd Cemetery was rescued by

concerned residents who cleaned it up.


Over in the South End of the old City of Sudbury, there is a cemetery

that was created in the bush by Finnish pioneers following the First

World War. As the South End built up, the decades passed, and

families moved, the cemetery fell out of use about 1945. But it re-

emerged in the public eye in the late 1980s when a skull and other

bones were dug up by teenagers. Police got involved, the bones were

recovered, and a reburial held.


In 2002, the local Finnish-Canadian Historical Society chapter, with

help from the city, cleaned up the cemetery grounds, cleared a

walking path from Long Lake Road to the cemetery, and unveiled a huge

memorial stone with the names of all the known people buried there.

A cemetery is a museum that features people, the memorial stones’

inscriptions or mausoleum plates often giving insights into lives

led. At the far back of the Lasalle Cemetery, for example, there is a

section where babies and infants are buried. The give-away to

visitors is the small size of headstones and also lambs on some of

those stones. There is also a huge monument featuring Jesus on the

cross which is testament to the 10 Roman Catholic priests buried

around it. One of those priests, Mgr. J. H. Coallier, was the founder

of St. Jean de Brebeuf Church in 1930 and served as its priest until

his death in 1956 at the age of 69.


A common thread with the city’s older cemeteries is the deteriorating

condition of headstones, especially those erected back at the start

of the 20th Century. In those days, sandstone was the common material

used, but it simply does not stand up well to the march of time.


Inscriptions on those stones were also embossed or raised as opposed

to being inscribed today. Consequently, many of those headstones have

cracked, broken into pieces, or had their inscriptions worn off

leaving visitors to wonder who lies beneath.


At the Lasalle Cemetery, the clay soil there is notorious for shifting and many monuments are tilted. Some of the older, heavier ones have toppled over.


While city staff who maintain the area's cemeteries (with the exception of the privately owned Park Lawn) do some work to straighten tilting headstones, when a stone gets damaged or too worn, it's up to the family involved to do repairs or replace the monument.


While time stands still at the older cemeteries, the newer ones are more accommodating to the living, encouraging people to come and spend some quiet time with their deceased relatives.


Check out the new interior mausoleum at Civic Memorial and you will discover it has skylights, music, chairs, air conditioning/ heat, and washrooms. It is so popular that a second addition will soon be built.


There's also a Veterans' Field of Honour at Civic Memorial, signified by an arch where veterans and their spouses are buried. On key military dates such as the D-Day invasion, memorial services are held at the site.


Lynn Gainer thinks graveyards are fascinating places.


The chairwoman of the Sudbury district branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society, Gainer has spent countless hours visiting northeastern Ontario cemeteries and recording the whereabouts of and information on headstones.


The branch has chronicled more than 15 northern cemeteries and put the information into booklet form. An excellent genealogical tool, the booklets are available for viewing at the Greater Sudbury Public Library's main branch on MacKenzie Street and can also be purchased for a nominal fee.


The work the Sudbury genealogical branch has done mirrors work done by other branches across Ontario, said Gainer.


The Sudbury branch, she said, is frequently asked if it can send members to isolated cemeteries across the North to do chronicling work.


"Every single thing on the stones gets written down," said Gainer. "Every stone gets done twice. They are indexed."


Gainer said a cemetery chronicling visit can take upwards of an entire day due to the time-consuming work that has to be done.


As well, the Sudbury branch has taken some local funeral home records and indexed them, much to the delight of the funeral homes.


"They think it's great," said Gainer. "They get a name and they can look it up."


Gainer said the Eyre Cemetery never ceases to amaze her due to the young age of so many of the inhabitants and the fact that many were new arrivals to the city from around the world.


And headstones tell stories, Gainer said. A stone in the next-door Anglican Cemetery marking the gravesite of Edward G. Poole is a great example, she said.


"It tells so much about a person you didn't know. He was born in Stellarton, N.S. and died in 1907. The inscription on the headstone is 'high hopes laid low' and 'erected by his fellow workers Canadian Northern Railway staff.' He was a civil engineer. He's 28. He has a huge cemetery stone.


"If you are a relative of his coming from Nova Scotia and visit the stone, it tells you a lot. There is so much history in them (headstones)."


Gainer said the work her branch and other genealogical branches are doing chronicling cemeteries is critical to retaining information about the past before it may be lost to the march of time.


"I'm so glad they got doing this," said Gainer. "It's all valuable work. You go into these old cemeteries and they are beautiful. There are very old graves.


"Sure, there's blackflies and tall grass, but we love doing it. When you look at the old stones, there are stories."


An avid genealogist who has travelled across Europe tracing her and her husband Jim's family trees, Gainer said European cemeteries are very different from North American ones.


In Europe, she explained, cemeteries are compact, flat, immaculately kept, and there are usually flower shops on site.


Al Sizer visits a cemetery every morning. As the city's manager of cemetery services, Sizer is in charge of the city-owned cemeteries including their care and plot/niche wall space purchases. Based at Civic Memorial, Sizer finds his job fascinating.


Of the two dozen area cemeteries the city looks after, about nine are active with burials occurring regularly. The largest one, Lasalle, is full at about 22,000 burials with only pre-sold plot burials occurring.


With most of the historical ones, the occasional burial still occurs.


That leaves the sprawling Civic Memorial, opened in 1986, but new by city cemetery standards, as the place where most burials occur today.


A tour of the grounds turns up the opposite of what one finds at old cemeteries such as Eyre and Lasalle. Here, there are headstones featuring laser etching, intricate carvings, polished marble and more. One plot even features a pair of granite Inukshuks. The new phenomenon of solar lights is also evident with many headstones having red or white versions. At the moment, the 26-acre cemetery is almost half filled. But the city has planned ahead and bought seven acres of land behind the now-idle high school next door and burials will continue for another 65 years.


But burials are not the big thing today, said Sizer. Cremations are.


"Cremations are becoming a bigger thing," he said. "Sixty-five per cent of our interments are cremations. They are going into existing plots or niche walls."


Sizer said cemeteries today are not like they were in the past.


"The idea that a graveyard is for the dead has completely changed, " he said. "We are trying to portray cemeteries as for the living. It's a virtual museum. There is a lot of history that you can check out."


A good example of that change in thinking is the annual Candlelight of Remembrance ceremony held at Civic Memorial. This year's event goes Nov. 6.


In some regards, several Greater Sudbury cemeteries have always been places for the living to spend time, Gainer said. Local Finns carry out a tradition on Christmas Eve in which candles are placed on the headstones of deceased relatives. The sight of a cemetery lit up by candles is breathtaking, she said.


Sizer said the new practise of placing solar lights beside gravestones gives a cemetery a different aura at night.


"Because it's a celebration of a life, we like to re-inforce that, " he said. "They have just started to take off in the last three years."


While Civic Memorial features good soil and little heaving in the spring, Lasalle and some of the other area cemeteries which have clay soil present a big challenge, said Sizer.


"Council has set aside some funds to do some remedial work," he said. "But the families own the monuments and it is their responsibility. We do have a plan and we try to get some (work) done. It has to be made safe."


Sizer added that a big project involving city-managed cemeteries is now in the final stages. Four people have been working for 18 months mapping the various cemeteries, not only identifying the people buried in them, but identifying occupied, sold but as-yet unoccupied, and available plots, he said.


Very soon, said Sizer, someone looking to purchase a plot or do genealogical research will be able to visit a Citizen Service Centre, or go on-line and tap into the information.


Accent runs every Saturday in The Sudbury Star.