Rock of Ages: Grave Concerns

graveyards, gravestones, photography and family

Rock of Ages 7: Not Always Written in Stone

Wood

Mountainside Cemetery, near Grande Prairie, Alberta

Mountainside Cemetery, near Grande Prairie, Alberta

Some of the first choices of gravestones were made from simple building materials — fieldstones, concrete, iron, steel, brass, bronze and wood. Wood markers became popular as gravestones among pioneers. [43] The material’s accessibility, affordability and how easily it could be intricately decorated were strong factors in its use. It was not uncommon for carpenters and cabinetmakers to be paid to carve wooden grave markers, but due to the natural decomposition cycle very few wooden markers survive more than 50-100 years. [44]

Metalworks
Two types of iron tomb “stones” can be located in eastern Canadian cemeteries from as early as the 1870s — wrought iron and cast iron. It is very easy to tell the two apart, cast iron markers have lasted for generations, but the few still in existence made of wrought iron have eroded away. [45]

Cast Iron

Notice the door-shaped passageway influence carried over from slate engraving?

Cast iron markers became popular and very advantageous over limestone gravestones, because limestone was so expensive to purchase; it took hours to quarry, deliver to the stonemason, carve and finally transport to the cemetery. [46]

When World War I arrived, an effort to conserve metal began [47] and memorial work returned to stone or stone-related materials.

Cement

Lake Saskatoon Cemetery, Grande Prairie, Alberta

Lake Saskatoon Cemetery, Grande Prairie, Alberta

During the Great Depression (1929-1939), one out of every five Canadians was on government relief. In Saskatchewan alone, the provincial income dropped by 90% in two years, as the prairies were severely hit with a brutal drought from 1933-1937. [48] Two-thirds of the country’s population was on social assistance. [49] Income loss averaged 72% [50] and a full recovery in the West did not start until World War II began! [51]

Cement ledgers were commonplace during the 1940s, with a few dated as early as 1910 and as late as 1990. [52] A ledger was a bevelled cap or lid that covered the entire area of a burial plot. [53] Some ledgers were made flat and capped a stone formation that “boxed in” the area, resembling a table. For some of less than fortunate means, a ledger was cast upon a wooden base. If a visitor were to walk across this type of ledger, it would give a gentle recoil like a buoyant spring. [54]

It was a monumental task to afford a gravestone during the 1930s and 1940s, but during a moment of grief, someone’s creativity shone through. A cement marker, located in Lake Saskatoon Cemetery, was privately cast after September 1930 with the decedent’s information etched upon it by the trace of a finger. [55]

[43] Richardson, Margaret. Alexandria Freedmen’s Cemetry Historical Overview, comp. (Virginia, 2007) http://oha.alexandriava.gov/archaeology/historical_overview.pdf
The last recorded use of wooden graves (in North America) marked the final resting places of 1800 African slaves who had fled the United States during the Civil War. Women and children, as well as the ill and wounded soldiers from the Union’s Coloured Troops are buried there.
[44] Headstone http://www.enotes.com/topic/Headstone#Metal.2C_wood_and_plants
[45] Headstone Cemetery Grave Marker http://www.grassmarkers.com/headstone.html
[46] Great Canadian Tombstones http://www.goldiproductions.com/angloboerwarmuseum/Boer93a1_tombst_pioneer.html
[47] Sinan, Alma. Symbols in Stone: White Bronze Monuments, The Raven’s Call (Winter 2010, Toronto, ON)
[48] The Great Depression http://www.yesnet.yk.ca/schools/projects/canadianhistory/depression/depression.html
[49 ]Great Deprression in Canada http://www.wordiq.com/definition/The_Great_Depression_in_Canada

[50] Canadian Atlas on Farming
http://www.canadiangeographic.ca/atlas/themes.aspx?id=farming&sub=farming_20thcentury_drought&lang=En

[51] StatsCan http://www65.statcan.gc.ca/acyb01/acyb01_0005-eng.htm
[52] Authour’s observations: cement was a common home-building material, during the Depression. The majority of ledger photographs in my collection are from the depression-era. A few relatives are buried in the family plots with the same type of ledger but are dated either before or after the depression and are from cemeteries in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Grande Prairie & District AGS was also helpful in supplementing my research with access to, and the usage of, their cemetery photograph collections. Unfortunately, I do not have any photos from Manitoba and was unable to locate any involving ledger use, during the time of researching this paper.
[53] The cement ledger photograph from Elrose Cemetery (Saskatchewan) and the abandoned cemetery photograph from Bolton, Ontario were supplied by my cousin, Linda Miller of Calgary, Alberta. Both photographs are used with permission.
[54] personal communication between Al Richards and Liam Hobbes, 10 DEC 2010.
[55] The wooden grave photo from Mountainside Cemetery and the cement grave photo from Lake Saskatoon Cemetery are copyrighted and belong to the Grande Prairie & District AGS cemetery photo collection. Both photographs are used with permission.

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