This may be the most boring cemetery book I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot). I bought a shrink-wrapped copy without paging through it because I’m fascinated by the cemeteries of Montreal, but this book turns out to have few photos of the monuments in Mount Royal Cemetery — and even fewer color views of the cemetery itself. That’s one strike against it.
Rather than illuminating the history of Montreal through the people buried in Mount Royal Cemetery, this book focuses on the business of running the cemetery, including minutiae on cemetery board discussions on how to police the behavior of visitors. There is a whole lot of detail about how burying the poor was seen as a Protestant duty and the rules the cemetery board consequently put in place to punish families who needed assistance burying their dead. Actually I found that quite interesting, although it went on and on.
Often, the most interesting stories in the book appeared in the photo captions, which described some of the controversial figures buried in Mount Royal. It made me wish I was reading a book comprised on the captions, instead of the main text.
To be honest, all things being equal, I prefer to explore Catholic cemeteries over Protestant ones, because Catholic cemeteries tend to have more sculpture and more detailed epitaphs and I can get a better sense of the people buried in them. Perhaps the same can be said for books about Catholic cemeteries vs. Protestant ones?
If you’d like to complete your cemetery book collection, you can buy a copy of Respectable Burial from Amazon: https://amzn.to/38wTMiW
Photos of Clara Terry’s grave by Melissa Cole. Used with permission.
by Laura Suchan
I am most definitely a cemetery tourist. No matter where I travel — neighbourhood, city, or country — I want to visit a cemetery. However, of all the cemeteries I’ve visited around the world, one of my favourites is located in my hometown of Oshawa, Ontario. Although there is not much known about the history of Union Cemetery, archival research indicates that the original 19 acres served as the Presbyterian burying ground and was purchased in 1848 from Robert and Euphemia Spears by the Secession Church.
The earliest recorded burial in the cemetery is that of Alexander Armstrong, a farmer and local magistrate, interred in 1837. The southwest corner of the property was the location of a brick Presbyterian Church (built in 1837), the original Presbyterian cemetery, a manse, and a school. The church is thought to be the first non-wooden public building in Ontario County. The large building sat 500 people and was used for church and educational meetings. The Church was destroyed by fire sometime after 1863. In 1875, the cemetery came under the ownership of a holding company, which hired noted landscape architect Heinrich (Henry) Adolph Engelhardt (1830-1897) to redesign the land. One of Engelhardt’s most famous design projects was Toronto’s spectacular Mount Pleasant Cemetery in 1874, now listed as a National Historic Site of Canada.
Engelhardt believed that every town and village should have one cemetery where people of all denominations could be buried. He felt it was important for burial grounds to be removed from churches. The location for a cemetery should, according to Engelhardt, “be carefully chosen, at some distance from the turmoil and bustle of active life, yet should be always easy of access. If the site chosen possesses natural advantages, such as hills and dales, groves and creeks, so much the better, but the improvements should agree and conform to the natural features of the place.”
Union Cemetery was designed with these principles in mind. Winding laneways and large trees make for a peaceful park-like setting, bringing to mind William Blake’s line “travelers repose and dream among my leaves.” I have often done that, enjoying contemplative walks throughout the grounds. Today the large cemetery encompasses more than 30 acres, 25,000 burials, and at least as many stories.
For me personally, one of the most interesting stories is about the unconventional Terwilliger sisters, particularly eldest sister Clarissa. Every town has them: the eccentric characters that add colour and flavour to any neighbourhood. In Oshawa, the Terwilliger sisters certainly fell into that category.
Clarissa (sometimes known as Clara) and Sarah were daughters of Abraham Terwilliger. They lived in a beautiful brick mansion on the main road in the east end of town. Their family was among the earliest settlers in the area, having arrived from New York State in about the year 1816. The sisters were said to be clairvoyants and became quite notorious in and around town for hosting free séances at their father’s home. Local resident and amateur historian Samuel Peddlar attended one such séance with a party of unbelievers and noted, “that while some (of the party) may have been impressed with startling noises and rappings, others could see nothing in them but something to excite a subdued merriment.”
In the early 1840s, the Terwilliger sisters followed the teachings of the Second Adventists, who believed that Christ would appear in person to claim his earthly kingdom. William Miller, an American evangelist, preached that the world would end in 1842 or 1843. Sarah so fervently believed in Miller’s vision that on the date of the predicted end of the world, she made herself a pair of silk wings and jumped from her father’s porch, hoping to fly to heaven. She fell 15 feet, resulting in a broken leg. The incident, as one would expect, garnered quite a lot of excitement in town.
An artist’s rendition of Sarah Terwilliger flying from the porch. It comes from Upper Canada Sketches by Thomas Conant, published in Toronto in 1898 by William Briggs.
Unfortunately, we don’t know much more about the Terwilliger sisters. While Sarah’s burial place remains unknown, Clarissa was said to be buried in Union Cemetery. I was determined to find out more about her, in order to shed some light on her story. I always felt sorry for Clarissa, partially because of the family’s notoriety even 175 years later and partly because I believe no one’s story should be lost to history. After much research, I found Clarissa’s gravestone in the south Presbyterian section, just to the right of one of the old access roads. The upright stone features a small tympanum with a weathered carving flanked by a graceful scrolling to the shoulders. A floral wreath with clasping hands inside adorns the upper part of the memorial. A few flowers grace the side of the stone. The stone reads, “In Memory of Clara Terry, Died.” All in all, it is a fairly typical gravestone of the time, except for two things: the lack of any other information, including a death date (even though there is a spot for one) and the phrase at the bottom of the stone which reads “Erected by Clara Terry.” This had me thinking: why would someone go to the trouble to make sure everyone knew that she erected her own gravestone? Perhaps more research would shed some light on the mystery. It was back to the archives.
Erected by Clara Terry. Photo by Melissa Cole.
Clarissa’s “attempting to fly” sister, Sarah, died about the year 1869. Shortly thereafter, Clarissa married John Terry, a medicine peddler and farmer, of East Whitby. In the 1871 Census of Canada, Clarissa and John lived in East Whitby Township with a young woman (possibly household help) named Harriet Young, then 23 years old. Sadly, John and Clarissa’s union appears to have ended; by the 1881 census, John Terry is living only with Harriet. They have a six-month-old boy named Frederick. Clarissa is still listed as living in East Whitby, but she appears to have moved closer to her parents Abraham and Alma Terwilliger. Could a marriage break-up be the reason Clarissa was adamant that her stone show that she was the one who erected it? Unfortunately, unless new information is unearthed, we will probably never know. We do know that in 1891, Clarissa is living with Chauncy Terwilliger, likely a relative. The 1901 census lists her as boarding with Alfreda Chatterson.
Clarissa passed away in Oshawa on July 17, 1905 — which begins the second mystery. Although her gravestone is in Union Cemetery, records show Clarissa is not buried there. No birth or death dates are listed on the stone. It can be surmised that, for whatever reason, Clarissa was buried in a still-unknown location. She may have ultimately been laid to rest in another local cemetery with her parents.
Hopefully, this is not the end of Clarissa’s story. It’s unfortunate that even 175 years after her sister jumped from the porch in a religious frenzy, the sisters Terwilliger are still associated with this eccentric act. I think it is important to separate Clarissa, the daughter, sister, wife, and friend, from the story of the town’s eccentrics. Her gravestone is a reminder that she did not conform to society’s expectations and did things her own way. Her story is also a reminder to me that, although I may travel the globe, some of the most remarkable treasures are in my own backyard. As the French novelist Marcel Proust once said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not of seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes”: a suggestion from Proust that there are many discoveries waiting in my own neighbourhood.
Heinrich Engelhardt, The Beauties of Nature Combined With Art, (Montreal: Lovell, 1872)
Oshawa Museum, Union Cemetery and Terwilliger family documents
Samuel Pedlar papers, unpublished manuscript, Oshawa Museum
She is a member of the Association of Gravestone Studies, the Abandoned Cemetery Committee for Clarington, Ontario, and is President of the Trent University Alumni Association for Oshawa/Durham. Laura enjoys writing, yoga, traveling, and spending time with her two sons. Connect with her at www.laurasuchan.com or on Facebook at Early Gravemarkers https://www.facebook.com/EarlyGravemarkers/.
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married or did anything else unusual in one. The submissions guidelines are here.
The Eaton Monument, Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto. Photo by Alma Sinan.
by Alma Sinan
“Hey, Morticia! Late for the funeral?”
As I approach the cemetery, a group of teenage boys walks toward me.
I’ve heard comments like these hundreds of times. My refusal to adopt the fashions of the 21st century invites criticism. My long hair is the color of coal. I wear white foundation, rim my eyes with ebony, and paint my lips pomegranate red. I have a piercing in my right eyebrow. Images of coffins and skeletons appear on most of my silver jewelry. From head to toe, I clothe myself in black, preferring the lace and velvet garments of yesteryear.
“It’s a beautiful day,” I say, giving the boys my warmest smile. “Enjoy it. We don’t live forever.” I’ve learned that it’s easier to be nice to people than to get angry. Besides, the last thing I want is a confrontation.
One of them yells a final, “Halloween’s in October!” before they laugh and walk away.
I enter Mount Pleasant Cemetery through the iron gates and breathe a sigh of relief. In this place I feel safe—safe from prying eyes and hurtful comments. It’s as if I’ve come home.
Traffic noises and other sounds of civilization fade as I stroll deeper into the cemetery. Soon all I hear is birdsong and the clicking of my heels against the pavement.
The monuments in Mount Pleasant comfort me. I love how they crowd in on every side as I walk along the path. Marble gravestones gleam white in the sun. Obelisks and columns rise like exclamation marks above family graves. “Look at me,” they seem to say. “I once lived!” Sculptures of maidens weep eternally for loved ones long gone. As always, I’m overcome by the beauty of this place. I love all graveyards, but I confess a preference for Victorian cemeteries like Mount Pleasant.
Last week I visited a “memorial garden.” It wasn’t a garden at all. Instead, it was a field filled with rows of cookie-cutter plaques laid flush with the ground. The scent of freshly cut grass hung in the air. Lawnmowers swept across the graves, unhindered by pesky upright tombstones. The price paid for this convenience was individualism. The desolate space could just as well have been a mass grave.
I kept thinking, “Where is the ‘memory’ in this ‘memorial’ garden?” I walked through a field of names and dates that meant nothing to me. A regulated grave marker is too small to hint at the deceased’s unique personality.
I gazed out across the windblown solitude of the field and felt an overwhelming sense of sadness. I realized that, in the modern day, we die the way we live: in loneliness. Single graves have become common. Relatives are rarely buried together on the same plot of land, the way they once were. This is partly due to the fragmentation of the modern family unit, which corresponds with improvements in transportation that made it easier for people to relocate. The dead, like the living, are scattered across the world. Is it any wonder we feel so disconnected?
In the Memorial Garden, plaques lay hidden within the vast manicured lawn. From a distance, there wasn’t any clue that the space was being used as a graveyard. Death had been “tastefully” concealed.
We do not live with death the way the Victorians did, with rampant fatal diseases and a high rate of child mortality. Few of us see death firsthand. Thanks to advances in medicine, we live longer. We go to great lengths to maintain the illusion of youth, sometimes resorting to cosmetic surgery to deny natural aging processes. The elderly are hidden in rest homes. Even the dead are rouged to give them the appearance of living. Because death has been erased from our sight, we wander through life, smug in the belief of our own immortality. Memorial Gardens help maintain this illusion. The modern-day cowardice to face death saddens me. Its arrogance in pretending that death does not exist infuriates me.
I breathe in the scent of blossoms and damp earth and shake away the memory of the memorial garden. Right now, I’m in Mount Pleasant, in the presence of Victorians and Edwardians who knew how to celebrate life and death. Here, monuments document a person’s life through inscriptions and symbols. Here, the dead are my friends. Within this cemetery, past and present seem to merge.
One and a quarter centuries are contained within this sacred space. Although Mount Pleasant opened in 1876, some graves here predate it. I reach a plaque that marks “The Resting Place of the Pioneers.” In the mid-1850s, the York General Burial Ground (a Potter’s Field) was closed down and the bodies relocated to other graveyards. The unclaimed remains came here. I always make this my first stop and say a silent prayer for these forgotten souls.
I also say a prayer for the forgotten souls created by the modern age. We have become so isolated. Why go out and talk to your neighbor when you have access to the world through your computer and TV? Most of us are so busy trying to make a living that we have little time to socialize. There’s no need to learn the art of conversation or the basic rules of etiquette. Is there really a need for human contact anymore?
I continue along the path that winds through Mount Pleasant. The sun bakes my pale skin and pierces my eyes. My black clothes absorb the heat. Sweat trickles down my spine as I trudge up a steep incline.
Halfway up the hill, I wander into a pool of shade. The tension seeps out of my body. A wave of wind splashes across my face. The maples mimic the sound of the sea. A delicious peace washes through my heart. Then I continue wading through puddles of shadow and light.
I crest the hill and gasp at the magnificent view. Here, the path perches above a ravine and overlooks the lower tier of the cemetery. Gravestones cling to the expanse of lawn like pearls woven into emerald silk.
A year ago, at a nearby Starbucks, I overheard a man tell his friend, “Mount Pleasant up the street—what a waste of prime real estate! Put up a couple of condos there, you know what they’d go for? We’re wasting perfectly good land on the dead.”
How could I tell him that the cemetery existed long before the city encroached? How could I explain that the Victorians designed their cemeteries not only for the dead, but for the living to enjoy as well? How I could I express my disappointment with this century’s lack of respect for nature and death?
With a sigh, I resume following the cemetery path. Mausoleums loom ahead of me in a section known as “Millionaires’ Row.” Small-scale Grecian temples line the ridge, eternal homes of some of the city’s proudest and wealthiest families.
I reach the Eaton Mausoleum and walk past the bronze lions guarding the entrance. Corinthian columns encompass the building. I stare up at the exquisitely carved acanthus leaves and yearn to return to an age when craftsmanship was valued.
The Victorians often drew their inspiration from the past. Classical architecture was considered the epitome of beauty. By replicating styles found in antiquity, the Victorians hoped to infuse their own culture with grace.
As a Romantic, I also long for yesteryear. My clothes, my home, the literature I read, the music I listen to are all an attempt to recapture a dream of an age long ago. This nostalgia is more than a fashion statement. It is an attempt to kindle my life with elegance and beauty.
I see a sparrow bathing in a large urn up ahead. My footfall startles the bird, which flies to a nearby tree. I walk to the urn and peer into the rainwater. Like a scrying glass, the dark pool reflects the clouds above. Upon this liquid mirror floats a single feather. Visions of flight fill my head. I remember what happened to Icarus when he flew too high. Perhaps, one day, we too will come crashing down.
A dreadful image of the World Trade Towers flashes through my mind.
“You like visiting graveyards? That’s so morbid,” a friend once told me. “Why are you so obsessed with death?”
“I’m conscious that there’s a deadline to my life, so I don’t waste it or take it for granted,” I replied. “Cemeteries remind me of the precious time that I have left here on earth. What’s morbid about that?”
The Baker Monument, photographed by Alma Sinan.
As I round a bend in the path, the Baker monument looks like a dead tree. Limestone branches are broken or sawn off. A dead bird has been carved into the base of the sculpture. The carver also added a vine that climbs the tree trunk. I run my fingers across the twisting stone ivy and think about the symbolism of the monument. Although the tree is dead, life still flourishes there. In fact, life flourishes because of death. This gravestone embodies my entire philosophy.
My favorite word is the German sensucht, broadly defined as melancholy. The word implies a general feeling of sorrow but also encompasses a state of yearning. A yearning for what? Connection—with people, nature, the past, the universe. Saying the word aloud, I feel longing deep within me.
A hush settles within the cemetery. An amber glow veils the gravestones. The sun curtsies upon the horizon, spreading her skirts of scarlet and gold across the sky. It’s getting late. Reluctantly, I head back toward the cemetery gate.
Just before reaching the entrance, I stop in front of an angel frozen in stone. As I stare at her, I feel an unexpected rush of gratitude to be living in this century. The angel’s face is oppressed by unyielding marble skin. Had I lived two centuries earlier, I would have been trained to repress my feelings. I feel grateful for the freedom to express my thoughts and emotions. The Victorian angel stands before me, her wings immobile. The 21st century has given me the ability to fly in any direction I choose. I have freedom to believe what I wish, dress any way I choose, and be whomever I want to be.
I reach the gate and see one of the groundskeepers. “Good night,” I wish him.
“It is,” he says. “Enjoy it. We don’t live forever.”
This essay originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #7. Reprinted here with Alma’s kind permission.
Alma Sinan is the Chair of the Ontario Chapter of the Association for Gravestone Studies. She has given professional tours and talks on cemetery design and gravestone symbolism, and hosts a monthly Morbid Curiosity Book Club in Toronto. Her short stories and articles have been published internationally. Interested in Alma’s events? Please join her meetup “Tombstone Tourists” for updates: http://www.meetup.com/Tombstone-Tourists-Meetup/events/220195867/
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.
I’ve already written about Drummond Hill Cemetery, but the photo challenge for the week is Focus, so I knew the sort of photo I wanted to post.
I visited Drummond Hill late in a busy day. We’d gotten up early to explore the tunnels behind Niagara Falls, then took a ride on the Maid of the Mist below the falls, then walked along the rapids farther out along the river. My parents planned to take my daughter back to the hotel to swim in the pool, but as we passed the cemetery on our way, my dad wheeled down a side street and dropped me off at the back gate.
Mourner leaning on a funeral urn
I had the graveyard mostly to myself. I admired the Victorian stones, many of which have been laid flat in the grass. The iconography spanned from weeping willows and mourners at the graveside to Jane Eliza’s sarcophagus (above). The stones hadn’t fared well in the damp, cold Canadian winters, but the man who’d labored over them had been an artist. I wondered if anyone now knows who he was.
It was tricky to photograph the cemetery with the late afternoon sunlight behind the headstones. I took several photos that I think of as “views,” pulling back from individual stones to see the graveyard as context, as scenery. The photo at the top was taken in the shadow of the old tree that may predate the pioneer graves beneath it.
I like that photo because it shows the range of stones in the graveyard, from the red granite column on the extreme left side through the bright white marble to the weathered gray granite with the bolster on top. I like the sense of the age of the cemetery, with its ranks and ranks of monuments. I even like the mist that fills the air and reminds me that the falls are not really very far away.
The battle monument at the top of Drummond Hill Cemetery
Drummond Hill Cemetery 6110 Lundy’s Lane Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada Telephone: Niagara Falls City Hall (905) 356-7521 Founded: 1799 Size: 4 acres Number of interments: More than 3000
In the final years of the 18th century, a pioneer graveyard stood atop the hill on Lundy’s Lane, beside the First Presbyterian Church. Buried in the churchyard were British settlers who were farming the fertile land near one of the wonders of the natural world: Niagara Falls.
Grave of John Burch
The EVP Society of Ontario says this cemetery contains some of the oldest gravestones in the area. The oldest surviving headstone in the graveyard dates to 1797. It remembers John Burch, who was initially buried on his own farm, but was reburied here in 1799. He was one of the earliest Loyalist pioneers in the area. In 1786, he had been one of the first to harness the Niagara River for commercial purposes, erecting saw and grist mills on the Upper Niagara Rapids.
To this day, the Niagara River and its waterfalls form a natural boundary between the United States and Canada. This became too close for comfort during the War of 1812.
My American education led me to believe that the Americans of the day were just calmly minding their own business when British soldiers attacked Washington, burned the Library of Congress, and generally were meanies in red coats. I didn’t know that American troops had invaded Canada in an attempt to annex Ontario.
The battle monument above the grave of 22 unknown British soldiers.
The bloodiest battle of the war, which Canadians consider their Gettysburg, took place on July 25, 1814 in the churchyard of the First Presbyterian Church on Lundy’s Lane. American forces repeatedly attacked Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond’s men, who held the hilltop after six hours of fighting. Both sides suffered casualties estimated at 800 men each. In the end, claiming victory, the Americans withdrew to nearby Fort Erie, which they abandoned in November that year. The American invasion of Canada was over, but if the battle had gone differently, Ontario would now be an American state.
Drummond’s men were left on the hill with the task of burying the 1600 dead men in trenches in the old cemetery. Twenty-two British soldiers lie beneath the monument to the Battle of Drummond Hill, which stands at the crest of the hill. The monument includes an obelisk, a pair of cannons, cannonballs, and a British flag.
Other soldiers, mostly unknown, remain buried around the cemetery. SpiritSeekers reports that the soldiers’ average age was 15. Some of the men are believed to continue to haunt the cemetery, especially at night.
Laura Secord’s monument was unveiled in 1901.
Also buried in the cemetery is Canadian national hero Laura Secord. When American officers commandeered her home, she overheard them plotting an attack on the British outpost at DeCew’s Falls. She walked nearly 20 miles alone through woods and swamps to warn the British. Lieutenant FitzGibbons gathered the 50 men under his command, 15 militiamen, and a small force of Six Nation and other Indians, and attacked the Americans at Beaver Dams. The small British contingent caught the Americans by surprise and forced their surrender after capturing their commander and cannons.
A monument erected by the Ontario Historical Society now marks Secord’s grave.
Also buried in the graveyard is Karel Soucek, a daredevil who went over Niagara Falls in a barrel in 1984. His monument is topped with a cylinder and is decorated with a portrait of him, surrounded by a stylized cascade of falling water. It quotes him as saying, “It is better for a person to take a chance at life…than to live in that gray twilight and know not victory nor defeat.”
Daredevil Karel Soucek’s gravestone
The Niagara Parks Commission assumed jurisdiction of the cemetery in 1910, later transferring it to the City in 1996. The Niagara Falls Museums have offered tours of the graveyard the last several Octobers, but the new schedule doesn’t appear online yet. One can assume that there will also be events to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the battle next July, but that information hasn’t been posted yet either. Keep checking here: http://www.niagarafallsmuseums.ca.
In the meantime, the Drummond Hill Cemetery provides a pleasant distraction from the estimated 13 million people who visit Niagara Falls each year. In addition to a variety of monuments to the battle, the cemetery contains several interesting pioneer graves, marked with bronze plaques, and a nice selection of marble gravestones with Victorian mourning reliefs. Even the more modern granite grave markers have lovely decorations. The cemetery is alive with black squirrels and birds. Even though you can still see the Skylon Tower overlooking the falls, the graveyard feels like it’s a world away.
I’d like to thank Mickie and Chad, our servers at the Elements on the Falls restaurant who encouraged me to visit the cemetery. I’d also like to thank my parents and daughter, who spared me for a couple of hours so I could poke around the cemetery while they enjoyed the hotel pool. Any vacation wouldn’t be complete without a cemetery visit.
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