A Grave Addiction: Halifax’s Old Burying Ground – Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

A Grave Addiction: Halifax’s Old Burying Ground
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

I have a soft spot for cemeteries, the older the better. Quite frankly, unless you’re seeing someone off to the Great Beyond, they are remarkably agreeable places to pass an afternoon. Older cemeteries have the advantage of sitting on large parcels of prime real estate often located in their city cores – mature well-treed lots that make urban developers salivate. Historically, grave sites were located well outside city walls to decrease the possibility of contamination. As populations swelled, these walls were pushed outwards so that these cities of the dead were embraced by those of the living. They are both urban anachronisms, gentle oases lying in the shadows of inner-city skyscrapers, and outdoor museums. Consequently, they provide the visitor with a tangible snapshot of history, a contained, contextual view of one’s past – like a fly caught in amber. They are the heart of a city, the soul of a community.

The window beside my computer overlooks Halifax’s Old Burying Ground, on the corner of Barrington Street and Spring Garden Road. In a city whose weather changes every fifteen minutes, the cemetery has been my barometer for several years. I have marked the passing of the seasons� I have contemplated the cemetery when it has been carpeted in a Persian carpet of persimmon-coloured leaves and I have despaired at the bleakness of its trees silhouetted in a weak winter’s light. But I have equally found cheer in its tiny shoots of green which pierce its snow and have played voyeur to the reverent meanderings of genealogists, amateur anthropologists and tourists among the grave stones or espy an office worker eating lunch in the shade. This spring, to a litany of chainsaws and power tools, I watched (and listened) as trees uprooted by Hurricane Juan were reduced to stumps. Removed to the neighbouring grounds of the (formerly) Technical University of Nova Scotia, a few enterprising individuals (rumour has it they were architecture rather than engineering students) created a short-lived gallery al fresco of stumps positioned in well-designed patterns.

The Body
The Body
In 1749, the land outside my window (then the artillery stockade) was established as a common burial ground, thus becoming the first burial ground in Halifax. The city’s southern wall ran along what is now Salter Street, up behind St Mary’s Basilica – just north of (or across the street from) the cemetery. This nondenominational cemetery became the final resting place for many members of Halifax’s founding families, as well as men from the British army and the Royal Navy who died in the region. In 1793 the graveyard was granted to St. Paul’s Church (Canada’s oldest Anglican Church). During its 95 years of active service, over 12,000 individuals were buried here although only one thousand (or so) foot and headstones are actually in tact. The burial of individuals in unmarked graves was commonplace among the poor or during periods of epidemic when production for gravestones could not keep up with the demands of the dying. For the most part, graves are laid out on an east-west axis so that the deceased’s feet point east and head toward the west, hearkening to the Christian belief in the resurrection when the dead rise and face a new day in the next life.

The tomb stones were hand carved (many of the stones’ backs still bear chisel marks) on slate that was imported from Massachusetts’ Bay until the American Revolution. Thereafter, local carvers continued the craft using indigenous slate, known as “ironstone” which was of a poorer quality. During the graveyard’s last twenty years or so of operation, larger and rather plain sandstone gravestones were erected.

Viewed as sacrosanct, cemeteries are historically well maintained by their communities and endure better than other examples of domestic architecture. Cemeteries therefore offer a wealth of information so, understandably, archaeologists have long studied these relatively untouched repositories for the historical clues they offer. In all fields of study, scholars have developed paleographic tools which enable them to use graphic images and language to date objects. In the study of graveyards, there is an iconography of the dead: the symbolism of its grave art, which like everything in life has a defined period of popularity, a shelf life in retrospective. Unlike today, the selection of gravestone symbols – itself a comprehensible language within its community – was more deliberate and played a greater role in the communal “death experience”. An entire community could find expression in this symbolism or use it to represent its own unique predilections. Commonly used to indicate membership in religious and secular groups, grave symbols could also identify social standing and the race and ethnic identity of a group. A tombstone’s size can also be an indicator of power, as it tends to decrease among those belonging to men, women, children, and among the rich and the poor.

A Winged Effigy
A Winged Effigy
Funereal symbols and funeral monuments encapsulate and elicit a range of emotions: austerity, despair, hope – I have even seen statuary that can only be described as sexy. On face value, the gravestones in the Old Burying Grounds appear to be rather sober and there are scant monuments – there are few towering obelisks here. But a closer look yields a wealth of imagery and symbolism: urns, plain and beribboned (the soul), winged effigies or cherubs (soul in flight), death’s heads (mortality, penance) and winged death’s heads (ascension into heaven), bones (decay), Masonic symbols (fraternal association), stars (divine guidance), suns (soul rising to heaven), moons (rebirth), birds (peace, messengers of god), poppies (sleep), six-pointed stars (creation), upright hourglasses (passing of time) and hourglasses spilled (life interrupted), willow trees and branches (mourning), and in one case, a coat of arms. It should be noted that although there is a canon of interpretation for these symbols, not all scholars agree to their exact meaning. It has been noted that the iconography of the earlier period (skeletal remains) reflect a more puritanical contempt for the world of the flesh, while the cherubs that followed illustrate a rise in romanticism with its attendant desire of immortality. During the 19th century, the belief of man’s supremacy and individuality (as witnessed with advances in science and technology) translates itself as self-interest – the overriding emotion portrayed is now grief at one’s own death (willow trees, urns).

Under a tiny death’s head is the cemetery’s oldest marked grave, belonging to two-year old Malachi Salter Jr. who, in 1752, left the embrace of his family for his place on what was then Pleasant Street. General Robert Ross, responsible for the burning of Washington during the War of 1812, found repose here as did Captain Lawrence of the USS Chesapeake (immortalize for his rallying cry “Don’t give up the ship”), although he was later repatriated to the United States.

The graves of the unfamiliar bear poignant witness to the passing and final resting of men, women and children (many infants) who, for the most part, are no longer known to us. Women are designated as “wife of” or “mother of”; the gravestones of children often only bear their names and their exact age at death. An exception is little Ann Welsh (age 1 year and 3 months) whose passing is recorded with notable tenderness: “alas she is gone and like the spotless dove to encrease (sic) the number of blest above.” In some instances, the manner of death is indicated (two young siblings died from ailments associated with the throat). One of the most intriguing gravestones belongs to James Bossom who “was Willfully Murdered On the Morning of the 8th of August 1839 by Smith D. Clark in the 23rd year of his Age.” One can only hope that Mr. Clark was indeed guilty of the crime which was set in stone for all to read.

In 1844, the Old Burying Ground closed, sending future tenants a few blocks away to the Camp Hill Cemetery. In 1855, the Sebastopol memorial was erected at its entrance, a rare pre-Confederation monument to honour two local men, Major A.F. Welsford and Captain William Parker, both killed in the Crimean War. Its construction is accredited to George Laing who also built the Federal Building in Halifax (what is now the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia). Its well-coiffed lion stands menacingly atop the arch, a confirmation of the bravery of those who died at war. Interestingly, lions are rarely used in cemetery iconography but, when they do appear, are believed to guard against the entry of impious visitors. In the 1860’s, the Old Burying Ground was landscaped and encircled by the wrought iron fence which, for the most part, stands today.

Since its inception in 1749, the Old Burying Ground has slumbered in a peaceful reverie while, before its gates, history – including two world wars and the devastating explosion of 1917 – changed the map of Halifax. This past year has taken its toll on the cemetery but in a more direct fashion – its trees were brutally assaulted by the winds of Hurricane Juan and then enveloped in the snows of its winter counterpart. When I look out the window now, I see markedly fewer trees and the canopy of foliage that once enticed visitors to take pause among the grave stones is less luxuriant. Cemeteries, even those whose gates are now closed, are living organisms, embodying the Russian proverb: we live as long as we are remembered. Like other living creatures, many have been added to endangered cemetery lists the world over. At dusk, as I look out over the cemetery, the fading summer light reflects through its remaining trees and the evening traffic seems magically still. It has survived much and I do not fear for it.

Notable Notes

  • The cemetery is located in downtown Halifax, at the corners of Spring Garden Road and Barrington Street, across from Saint Mary’s Basilica and St. Paul’s Church.
  • A restoration project was initiated in the mid 1980’s to combat the effects of vandalism and time; it now serves as an outdoor museum and park.
  • Grave rubbings are not permitted.
  • Didactic panels are situated throughout the cemetery to assist visitors.
  • Admission is free.
  • The site is preserved and maintained by the Old Burying Ground Society (who also restored the cemetery).