When is a grave not a grave? When it was dug before 1846, that’s when. Then it’s an archeological site. But after that point, it’s a cemetery. You’d think that the distinction wouldn’t matter. But it does. As Justine Hunter explains in an article in The Globe and Mail:

Registered cemeteries are rigidly protected by the law – visitation hours and the use of motorized vehicles, for example, are regulated. But under the rules that govern heritage sites, which apply to those earlier burial grounds, the benefits of archeological preservation are weighed against the benefits of development.

In Paris, overcrowded cemeteries led to the creation – in the eighteenth century – of the Catacombs (caution for the squeamish: link opens to a closeup of several skulls), which house the bones of over 6 million individuals and are now a tourist attraction . My mother tells me that one of the houses she lived in as a child was apparently built on the site of a former cemetery, and that they played among the worn down gravestones in their back yard. Here in Newfoundland, the StonePics database has sought to catalogue all the cemeteries, even those in remote, now abandoned communities.

How do we navigate memory? How do we ensure its material manifestations? Who lived here? Who died here? Whose stories are told? Whose stories are erased, excavated and destroyed in the name of development? How do we make room for the dead in the land of the living?

I’ll leave you with the words that open the Globe and Mail article.

Trudging along a muddy path through a lush forest of moss-draped Douglas fir and Garry oak near Victoria, archeologist Darcy Mathews sees the dead everywhere.

“We are firmly in a cemetery,” he said. Nearby, he points out the faint footprints of ancient fortifications, shell middens, places where camas lilies were farmed as indications of a much earlier occupation. Amid those signs of life, he is looking for patterns in the rocks that reveal graves – the most tangible remnant of a Coast Salish village.

After an hour of walking with Mr. Mathews, you start to see it too. The area, now preserved as parkland, is dotted with rock cairns marking the graves of First Nations peoples, a funeral practice used between 500 and 1,500 years ago. Mr. Matthews has registered hundreds of these sites in just a small strip of coast around the southern tip of Vancouver Island.

There is much to consider.


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