I have a fascination with old graveyards, the older and more isolated the better. When I was researching my Prospect stories, I spent considerable time wandering through ghost towns and old graveyards. The tale of human triumph and tragedy was there, written on the stones. I could tell when an epidemic has passed through the area by the number of children who died within weeks of each other. One heartrending epitaph gave a child’s age as 27 hours. One stone gave a brief epitaph of a man’s life and concluded with the words, “shot” and the date.
Some grave markers are stone, others are wooden, one notable one was a varnished tree branch. Some are nearly impossible to read with moss and lichen covering the face and weather dimming the letters. At Fort Steele, in British Columbia, there is a very well tended corner of the historic graveyard, surrounded by a wrought iron railing, (the original white pickets rotted), it contains the memorial of five members of the NorthWest Mounted Police, who died there.
On older gravestones the place of birth was often noted. As though the deceased wanted future passersby to know where he came from as well as where he was buried. Perhaps they had a sense of history and knew family members might one day come looking for them.
Here are two examples: Native of Milton Abbot, Devonshire, England. Aged 32 years, who met with his death on the 15th of June 1864 by accident while working in the Prairie Flower Ore Claim
Native of Sweden. Born in the year of our Lord [date removed]. Died in the R.C. Hospital the 10th of October, 1883 from the effect of a fall in a shaft by which he broke his back and died afterwards within six hours.
I also have a penchant for reading the obituaries. There are some interesting stories told in those columns too, although more and more I see “no service by request,” and “ashes were scattered . . .” In contrast to previous generations, our age seems less inclined to leave a monument to mark their passing through this world. Perhaps they wish to spare their families expense. Perhaps their ideology opposes cemeteries. Whatever the reason, future generations will be unable to wander through a graveyard and read the history on its stones. We’ll all be poorer for it.