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In the fall of 2007, QAHN launched its Cemetery Heritage Inventory and Restoration Initiative (CHIRI). Our objective was to evaluate cemeteries of English speaking communities and / or religious congregations in several areas of Quebec, including the Laurentians.

From a rather rainy but mild October to the early snowfall of mid-November, I traveled throughout the vast and diverse landscape of the Laurentians, sometimes with an enthusiastic assistant, sometimes alone. As time passed and my cemetery visits expanded beyond my familiar home turf of Morin Heights and Mille Isles, the assignment began to take an “Other Worldly” feel. There is a whole geography quite different from what we are used to. The season of the year and the wild natural environment at many of the sites I visited contributed to this feeling. In addition, each cemetery was unique, with its own history and its own present situation.

Edina Cemetery. (Photo - Sandra Stock)The most interesting, and emotionally intense, sites were the very old cemeteries, many of which are the only remnants of long-vanished pioneer settlements. St. John’s Anglican Church and Cemetery of Shrewsbury in the Municipality of Gore was already known to me, but was not the most obscure site by any means. The church is still functioning, albeit seasonally, and there is a concerned group looking into the future of this site. However, a friend and I -- after promising not to reveal the location -- were taken to another cemetery in the Gore area that pre-dates St. Johns. Off the beaten track and in dense forest, it dates to the 1820s and was the final resting place of twenty-seven Irish pioneers, the first settlers of the district. The remaining stones are small, homemade and without inscriptions. There are footstones as well as headstones and many of the trees that had long ago grown among them are now dead and have been replaced by second or third growth. The extremely tough walk through the bush, and the fact that one has to know what to look for to find this graveyard, have probably protected it from harm over the years. However, our guide was concerned for the future of the burial ground, since so much development is occurring around Gore. The location and story connected to the site have been entrusted to his family as a secret for well over a hundred years.

Other old cemeteries that have outlasted their communities are found at Edina, New Glasgow, Kilkenny, Scotch Road, Rockway Valley and Gray Valley. The oldest extant tombstone, located at Scotch Road, dates to 1818. There are, however, at several cemeteries, even older graves whose stones have gone missing.

New Glasgow Presbyterian Cemetery. (Photo - Sandra Stock)Some cemeteries are located in populated communities, but have either not been in use for years or have become full. Examples of this are the cemeteries attached to Grace Church in Arundel and the United Church in Shawbridge. Others, such as the large, originally Presbyterian, cemetery at New Glasgow, in Sainte-Sophie, reflect a once thriving English-speaking community that has now disappeared. The inscriptions on New Glasgow’s stones date from the 1820s and show how this initially Scots settlement evolved into a multi-cultural community. Then, starting in the 1950s, the number of burials dwindled to the point where the site is now virtually abandoned. Indeed, it was difficult to find any information about what organization (if any) cares for it. Some years ago, when the United Church was still fairly active in this area, an attempt was made to hand it over to the local Anglican congregation. However, the Anglicans are also declining and now their few remaining parishioners are concerned about the future of their own cemetery on l’Achigan Road outside New Glasgow.

Edina, another Scots settlement from the early 1800s, is northwest of Dalesville in the Municipality of Brownsburg. This cemetery is situated in an obscure spot on a quiet dirt road. Local residents and descendants of those buried there have attempted to maintain the cemetery, which has seen little use since the 1940s, but now only one elderly person is attempting to care for the grounds and stones. The change from agriculture to industry, the out-migration of young Anglophones, and the decline in church participation have all been factors in the plight of places like Edina.

The more contacts I made in the region, the more cemeteries I learned about – and almost all of them are at risk or face an uncertain future. Two interesting ones, in the Municipality of Boileau, technically lie in the Outaouais region, beyond the official boundaries of the Laurentides. These were the old communities of Ponsonby, now completely off the map, and Brookdale, now just the name of a road. Settlement had reached northwest to this district around the 1880s, and this sparsely populated, but still quite Anglophone, area, is linked socially, and by the few roads, to Arundel.

After crossing the Rouge River at Huberdeau, and visiting the Rockway and Gray Valleys cemeteries, a friend and I proceeded by what felt like a series of endless dirt roads, hemmed in by thick conifer bush, for many kilometers into Terra Incognita towards the Ponsonby Anglican Cemetery and my contact there. This is virtually at the end of the area of original settlement in the Laurentians. The area had been active in the early twentieth century with lumbering operations on the Maskinongé River. The one-time settlement of Brookdale even once had a hotel and a cheese factory. Yet, being just a bit too far for second homes and tourism, the district retains an air of yesteryear – perhaps how Morin Heights and Saint-Sauveur looked sixty years ago. There is an active community life though, and the very attractive Brookdale United Church still holds summer and Christmas services. The closest town – and it isn’t very close – is Saint-Rémi-d’Amherst.

Ponsonby Cemetery. (Photo - Sandra Stock)The cemeteries themselves, although individually different, have traits in common. All denominations face the rising sun. All reflect, in the symbolism on the stones, the general beliefs about death and eternity of our cultural inheritance. These beliefs are not necessarily the official teachings of Judeo-Christian denominations. Something much older and probably subconscious was evident to me from viewing so many graves in such a short time. The predominance of large trees, both as ornamentals in the graveyards and as icons on the stones, has persisted from the earliest burials to the most recent. Visual styles have changed with time, but the trees remain. Also, animals figure prominently on the stones. From Victorian lambs and doves to the wide selection of domestic and wild creatures that we see on more recent graves, I encountered a veritable zoo of beasts, birds, insects and even fish. Deer and blue jays led the pack of these perhaps “spirit guides” into the Other World. In addition to wildlife, there were complete scenes of Laurentian lakes, mountains and even homes and boats etched on stones. Musical instruments, skis, canoes and fishing equipment also figured. Even the greatest skeptic has to wonder at this evidence of both a great love for the departed and a hope that eternity offers a landscape similar to the one enjoyed here on earth.

It amazed me to find actual offerings of food, drink and even recreational substances deposited at graves. These were not always litter, but actual presents to the departed. Of course, there were the expected flowers and plants, usually natural, but also of the plastic variety – the bane of cemetery caretakers everywhere.

My final thought after visiting all of these sites, with about half of them really at risk, and all of them potentially at risk in the future, is that a major change of focus has to be taken by communities, heritage organizations, religious groups and individuals if we hope to restore, preserve and maintain these cemeteries. As the best-kept ones tended to be those not strictly aligned with any religious congregation, but under the control of a corporation based in the community, much of this change has to come through the various church organizations. Generally, the people of a local parish are interested and concerned about their cemetery but feel that the church hierarchy has no interest and may in fact wish to “unload” what is after all unprofitable real estate. Even cemeteries at official historic sites, such as Christ Church Anglican in St. Andrews East, are in poor condition and at risk.

Local history, genealogy and heritage tourism are all good reasons to restore cemeteries. Recent developments have shown some inventive ways in which people are working to preserve cemeteries. Knox Presbyterian in Arundel, for example, has a complete photographic inventory of its gravestones on its website. Scotch Road and St. Columban, Irish section, also have good websites and are making efforts towards preservation. However, most of the cemeteries I visited are in need of help as their problems are now beyond the financial and practical resources of their caretakers. Many no longer even have caretakers and require intervention from some other source.

When the snow melts, I hope to visit at least six more sites to add to the thirty-five I saw last fall. The cemeteries are diverse, some have outstanding locations, some are hidden in the forest, some are well maintained, and some are dilapidated, but none are depressing or gloomy. They are all proud testaments to the continuity of life and deserve our care. **Sandra Stock is President of the Morin Heights Historical Association.