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Grave matters 

Megan Wennberg uncovers the real-life history behind Halifax’s oldest cemetery, the Old Burying Ground at the corner of spring garden road and barrington street.

Death is a fact. In the Old Burying Ground, running along Barrington Street and Spring Garden Road, it is a fact made humbly beautiful.

The Old Burying Ground is Halifax’s oldest cemetery. It opened in 1749, and it is the final resting place for close to 1,300 grave markers and approximately 12,000 bodies. (Some were buried in mass graves; others lost their grave markers over time to rotten wood or broken stone.) The remaining gravestones consist primarily of headstones, a few footstones and several raised tombs of varying shapes, sizes and levels of illegibility. Some sink forlornly into the soil, eroded, illegible, weather-beaten mementoes to lives long forgotten; while others stand proud, solid monuments of painstakingly carved symbols and letters proclaiming the names and dates of people long dead.

It is not a scary place, nor is it a place full of grief. The Old Burying Ground closed in 1844 with the opening of Camp Hill cemetery, and its dead have spent the past 150 odd years resting in peace, as tourists with cameras and punks with kittens wander the grounds above. It is a place of peace and quiet; of individual, local and national history; and it is a place where function meets spirit and life reclaims death.

“Each stone is the story of a life lived in Halifax,” says Deborah Trask as she scurries between one gravestone and another, pausing here to touch an angel’s wing, there to brush aside tree droppings and trace a name with her fingers. “For some of them, these are the only records there are ever going to be, and that’s just a fact. I worry about , they’re so vulnerable.”

Trask is on the board of directors of the Old Burying Ground Foundation, the charitable foundation that restores and maintains the cemetery. She is also curator emeritus at the Nova Scotia Museum, former curator of Buildings and Operations and an original member of the Association for Gravestone Studies (an international organization founded in Massachusetts in 1977 that’s dedicated to the study and preservation of gravestones). Trask’s love for gravestones runs deep, and she knows many of the stories of the Old Burying Ground stones by heart: “‘Here lies buried the body of Martha Binney…a babe in her arms…daughter of Capt. Steven Hall…died November 6, 1757, aged 28 years, five months and 23 days.’

“Now that’s important because this is the record. And the story continues over here,” says Trask, indicating a smaller stone a couple of meters away. “‘Here lieth the body of…’ If you could read it, it’s a baby boy who died, I think, November 11, aged five days. So without its mother, the baby didn’t have a hope. This is the twin . Seventeen fifty-seven wouldn’t have been fun to be a woman. She died in childbirth, which was very common on up into the mid-1800s and later.”

Many of the Old Burying Ground stones tell a similar story, while others mark the graves of children or elderly people. Some mark a common resting place for all three, listing grandfathers, daughters and grandsons on the same block of Massachusetts blue slate or Nova Scotia ironstone. Rare is the stone commemorating a man in his prime, however, because the loss of income to the family would have been too great. “You’ll often find if they’re gravestones for women it’s because the husbands were grieving and put up a stone,” says Trask, “whereas if a father died, the family didn’t have the resources to get a stone.”

A family’s financial resources (or lack thereof) are also evidenced by the size and style of the stones. “That one is crazy,” says Trask, indicating a particularly ornate grave marker. “It’s got inserted marble panels, a three-dimensional urn on the top and one, two, three, four, five, six, seven plinths. And it had a little iron railing set in stone right around the grave. Somebody paid a bundle for that.” Many others, in contrast, mark the graves of “ordinary people” and are inscribed with little more than the name and date of the deceased, topped by a carefully engraved skull.

“Those with the skull are remnants from a day when were very functional,” says Trask. “Almost always if you see a skull, it says ‘Here Lies the Body.’ It’s not a memorial; it’s a functional grave marker. And those aren’t particularly scary skulls if you look at them, it’s just in case you’re illiterate, there’s no question about what this is. First and foremost these are functional objects. They’re marking a grave.”

In the spirit of functionality, the gravestones in the Old Burying Ground have been rearranged (placed in straight lines, foot stones removed or realigned) over the years to allow for both ease of walking and lawnmower passage. A portion of the stones lined up at the fence along Spring Garden Road were also relocated prior to the road’s widening for the city’s bicentennial in 1949. “When Spring Garden Road was widened, everything was just moved in,” says Trask. As for the bodies the moved stones were meant to be marking, “There wouldn’t have been much left. There’s lots of acid in this soil.”

Trask has visited thousands of graveyards and readily accepts the physical fact of death. Her interests lie more with the artifacts than the individuals buried beneath them. The old stones are beautiful, each one wrought by hand, from the sculpted angels complete with timely wigs (“In the 1700s all angels were men”), to the hammer-and-chiseled names, dates and epitaphs carved across their fronts (“If you look really closely you can see where the carver actually scribed little lines ”).

Modern cemeteries hold less interest for Trask. With their hard, machine-carved and polished granite slabs standing in carefully plotted rows on manicured lawns, they are seemingly invincible to death, yet are all the more fraught with grief. “A modern cemetery that’s being used is a place of great sadness,” says Trask. “People leave things, tokens of their grief. And so I keep away from those places for that reason. Not because it’s distressing, it’s a fact, but you can’t be going in and observing the very personal emotion that is grieving.

“As the community of the dead gets further removed in time from the community of the living, there’s more interest in making it attractive to modern eyes. It’s not a place of great sadness.”

Wandering through, there are no tokens of love or loss, just insects and vegetation, weather and worn stone. The people buried here are no longer grieved, nor, save a few stones of note (Major General Sir Robert Ross, the man credited with “burning Washington,” and Joe Howe’s father and step-mother), even remembered. A sense of calm fills the Ground, and the space between the graves lives quietly under a growing layer of thick green grass.

“As you know,” says Trask, patting one stone before hurrying on to the next, “there’s only one thing that’s definite…Right?”

Guided tours of the cemetery are available when the weather is fair. For more old burying ground points of interest, check the Wextras.

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