le Lundi 29 mai 2023
le Mardi 1 juin 2021 16:12 Société

Cemetery Tourism : Connecting With Our Ancestors

Ever since confinement and social interaction restrictions have been in effect, just for a change of scenery, my wife and I have been roaming on the roads of Prescott, Russell and Glengarry counties (and Argenteuil when the bridge ‘border’ was open): highways, regional, county, rural, concession roads: we must have travelled them all! Almost every afternoon, from 2:00 to 3:00, that has been our routine. What a beautiful land we are fortunate to live in and on! Common denominator to all those towns, villages, hamlets: churches and…cemeteries. Sometimes we slow down and take a closer look, sometimes we stop and park for a while, but I’m a bit hesitant to get out of the car and walk to and through it: I’m not here to grieve a passed family member; which brings the question: What am I exactly doing here?

Driving through Chute-à-Blondeau on one of those excursions and hitting all the side streets (all 3 of them!), nestled on top of a small hill at the south end of Des Pins street, sits the Riverview cemetery (also known as the Protestant cemetery); unless you know of its existence because you are a neighbor or it is the resting place of someone in your family, you would have never suspected its presence! Back home and online, a general Google research lead me to a 1995 document written by Messrs. Cotton and Higginson which dates the purchase of the land to 1873, and then proceeds to list everyone buried there since; they dedicated their book ‘to all the pioneers who contributed financially to establish the cemetery for their descendants and those who followed in their footsteps’. A lien to this other site, written by the same authors, lead me to the now abandoned Founders (also called Wason) cemetery, located on Sandy Hill road next to the former Jean Vanier catholic school; it is now unregistered and was seemingly ‘cleared’ in the 1960s; it is now mainly a nice piece of land with many mature trees, on which only a few complete tombstones remain, one only supposedly still standing. (All records available on the Ontario Genealogical Society, OGS files #2625 and 2857 at www.ogs.on.ca)

There are places that bridge the gap between the present and the past, between the living and the dead: cemeteries do so. I must admit that the title’s first two words ‘Cemetery Tourism’ might make some ill at ease, but once the concept is analysed without prejudice nor with ulterior motive, it will turn out that it is something we all do on different occasions when we happen to be visiting a cemetery for a burial or the commemoration of someone’s death. But there is a basic etiquette to follow, a fine line between an ethical presence/visit of a cemetery and commercial touristic exploitation of the premises. Without getting into details, I’ll summarize each attitude by one word: respect vs selfies.

The main purpose of cemeteries is the dignified disposition of human remains in accordance with provincial statutes and municipal by-laws; but they also serve as historical, memorial, spiritual and recreational greenspace within the urban environment. They are the record of the social history of the area, an historical resource, a biography of its community; and an invaluable research tool for genealogists.

Before the 1800s, America had no cemeteries per se, as per large modern graveyards that we know today: it evolved from small family plots to the first rural church-affiliated cemeteries and later to memorial parks;  the great rural cemeteries were built at a time when there weren’t public parks, art museums, botanical gardens: people flocked to cemeteries for picnic, for hunting and carriage racing among beautiful sculptures and horticultural art; they became so popular that guidebooks were issued to visitors and all kinds of rules were posted. Today’s high-rise mausoleums as built in dense urban areas of Japan, Italy and the USA answer a need to restricted land space and accessibility, but the ‘feeling’ is not the same.

A few years ago on a group tour of Washington D.C., we were able to visit the Arlington National cemetery, the resting place of 400,000+ men and women; it covers 624 acres of land and greets more than three million visitors each year; the small rectangular identical white marble tombstones are all equidistant from one another in a geometric grid pattern. You will experience a mixed feeling of thrills and chills as you proceed on these very sacred grounds and may even find distant family members in their Registry.

Opened in 1804, it is said that the famous Père Lachaise Paris municipal cemetery hosts more than one million bodies, plus many more in the columbarium holding the remains of those who were cremated; famous people, Piaf, Bécaud, Chopin, Jim Morrison, Molière, Lafontaine, Rossini, Oscar Wilde, Balzac and many other celebrities have chosen this setting as final resting place; monuments to the memory of soldiers of WWI and WWII who died for France are an attraction to many descendants of soldiers and victims of war. Over three million visitors a year roam its alleys and green spaces. This cemetery is still active: to be buried there, you need to fulfill one of two conditions: to have lived in Paris or to have died in Paris! From rich and famous celebrities to the poorest homeless, it promotes democracy in death as it was the case at birth.