The Tomb­stone Tourist

Full of his­tory and peace­ful sur­round­ings, this lo­cal ceme­tery has be­come a reg­u­lar haunt

More of Our Canada - - Contents - by Rob­bie Gorr, Petawawa, Ont.

For this ge­neal­ogy buff, ex­plor­ing his lo­cal ceme­tery is like tak­ing a jour­ney back in time.

One of my favourite recre­ational and pho­to­graphic des­ti­na­tions is not a plane ride away, a trip across an ocean or a cruise down a dis­tant coast, but is merely a few kilo­me­tres drive from my home. St. Columba’s Ceme­tery in Pem­broke, Ont., is an old ceme­tery dat­ing back more than 130 years that still re­mains in use— and it’s one of my reg­u­lar weekly ports of call.

I be­gan haunt­ing grave­yards when I first be­gan to re­search my own fam­ily his­tory. I was al­ways in­trigued by the names and carv­ings, as well as the va­ri­ety in the styles of the tomb­stones, and the sto­ries that they told about so­cial his­tory—to the eyes of the keen ob­server. Then I be­gan to tran­scribe the in­scrip­tions in area ceme­ter­ies—it was an ex­cuse to re­turn to some in­ter­est­ing places and an op­por­tu­nity to make avail­able to other re­searchers the kind of in­for­ma­tion that was use­ful to me when I be­gan.

For years this par­tic­u­lar ceme­tery in Pem­broke held my in­ter­est as I con­ducted my ge­nealog­i­cal re­search and found many an­ces­tors and other rel­a­tives in­terred at this site. I was also part of the lo­cal ge­neal­ogy group that recorded the tomb­stone in­scrip­tions, even serv­ing as the proof­reader and ed­i­tor of that pub­li­ca­tion. Later, it be­came an ex­cel­lent re­source when as­sist­ing oth­ers with their own fam­ily his­tory re­search, and re­mains a source of lo­cal his­tor­i­cal in­ter­est, as the tomb­stones and mon­u­ments are a rich re­source about the peo­ple who set­tled in this area.

Hav­ing now re­tired from a teach­ing ca­reer that lasted more than three decades, I have found even more rea­sons to visit this lo­cal ceme­tery. It has be­come one of my favourite weekly walk­ing lo­ca­tions as I am able to park the car and wan­der the sev­eral kilo­me­tres of criss-cross­ing road­ways set in a grid pat­tern. Most of the lanes are paved, al­though some are still gravel. I can walk up a gen­tle rise, past the burial vault and back to­wards the for­est bor­der, weav­ing my way through the old­est sec­tion at the front and into the newer sec­tions of more cur­rent buri­als, pass­ing the re­cently in­stalled colum­baria in their own land­scaped sec­tion.

Walk­ing through a ceme­tery is like tak­ing a jour­ney through time and look­ing back into the his­tory of the area. Ev­ery mon­u­ment and burial site has its own story to tell. I have al­ways been fas­ci­nated by the seven- foot­tall ce­ment tomb­stone hand­crafted by a city labourer in 1927, a charm­ing mon­u­ment in mem­ory of his first wife. I pass the rest­ing places of the priests of the dio­cese and two lo­cal or­ders of nuns, but al­ways feel com­pelled to stop and read the names in a bor­der sec­tion of the ceme­tery con­tain­ing in­fant buri­als, once ly­ing out­side the orig­i­nal ceme­tery bound­ary and used for the in­ter­ment of the un­bap­tized. And then there is the grave of a young hockey player, his jersey carved on the back of the tomb­stone, whose re­cent tragic death is re­mem­bered via tro­phies, me­men­toes and even a cup of Tim Hor­ton’s cof­fee placed by friends and fam­ily vis­it­ing his grave.

My own an­ces­tors are buried here as well and I al­ways spare

a glance and some­times take a stroll off-road to visit the graves of sev­eral great- and great­great- grand­par­ents. They are peo­ple that I never knew but through ge­nealog­i­cal re­search and study­ing our fam­ily his­tory, I feel close to them and en­joy the fact that I can spare a few mo­ments to visit. After all, some parts of those peo­ple still live on in me, their descen­dant.

The walk is al­ways quiet and peace­ful— you would ex­pect noth­ing else in a ceme­tery. Many of the trees are full grown and pro­vide pock­ets of shade. They also at­tract all man­ner of birds, chip­munks, squir­rels and in­sects and so the sounds of na­ture abound. Morn­ing walks are cool and re­fresh­ing in the early sun­shine while af­ter­noon strolls can be balmy and lethar­gic. Evening walks are also tran­quil as the shad­ows lengthen and stretch from the sun low­er­ing be­hind the tall trees on the western bor­der.

And while I am walk­ing the lanes in this city of sleep­ers, I can in­dulge in yet an­other hobby—pho­tog­ra­phy. I en­joy tak­ing pho­tos and, in my re­tire­ment, now have the leisure to pur­sue that in­ter­est as well. One of my favourite sub­jects can be found in most ceme­ter­ies, for I en­joy tak­ing pic­tures of the stat­u­ary dec­o­rat­ing the mon­u­ments, es­pe­cially the an­gels. I’m not sure why I find an­gels so in­trigu­ing, but some of my best photographs are of the stone rep-re­sen­ta­tions of those heav­enly be­ings. In fact, I have a framed col­lec­tion of an­gel photographs in a hall­way of my home, and this year I cre­ated my own cal­en­dar with my pic­tures of an­gels. And this ceme­tery has some of my favourite an­gels, which I’ve now pho­tographed from ev­ery an­gle, at ev­ery time of day and in ev­ery sea­son.

I find my­self spend­ing time at least once a week in this ceme­tery. At this point some of you are prob­a­bly ask­ing, what in the world is he do­ing in a place like that? But those who have been there know that there is a peace like no other to be found in a ceme­tery; a calm, un­hur­ried time that can be made es­pe­cially pleas­ant by a warm sum­mer morn­ing or a sunny au­tumn af­ter­noon. Some spots are scenic beyond de­scrip­tion, perched on a hill top, framed by a green for­est or be­side the run­ning wa­ters of a creek.

In Vic­to­rian times, ceme­ter­ies were of­ten used as parks where cou­ples walked or fam­i­lies pic­nicked, a tra­di­tion we’ve grown away from in this mod­ern age. Why not spend some time your­self at your own lo­cal ceme­tery? You might dis­cover that you, too, are a tomb­stone tourist. ■

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