Great Canadian Heritage Treasure Canadian Tombstones:  The earliest pioneer tombstones were just simple wooden crosses over people who died while traveling through the wilderness. That is all many lumbermen, or voyageurs, ever got.

When people settled in shanties or log houses, they buried family members close to their homes, usually on a hill or height of land. "Let's put him overlooking the creek Jeb. He always used to run down there with Rover."

Then they would mark the graves with slabs of wood with carved initials or name.

As life improved pioneers would save money to pay to have a proper grave marker made "in town," which might be forty miles away. These were made out of limestone, plentiful in many parts of southern Ontario.

The Niagara Peninsula tombstone left tells the story of a typical family in early 19th century eastern Canada, starting with a tragedy in 1834.

Fifteen years later times are still tough. James, passed on at 12. Perhaps a tree fell on him during land clearing, or an axe wound in his leg got infected, or he drowned while crossing a swollen creek in spring.

His infant brother had died first in 1834, perhaps from pneumonia contracted in a shanty, which were often impossible to keep properly warm. The baby died so quickly they never even got to give him a name. Originally he probably also, only got a wooden slab marker.

But now the family could afford a proper stone to mark the place where both boys were laid to rest. For how many generations this stone marked their last resting place is unknown...

Pioneer Tombstone, Ontario - 1849
Orig. limestone - Size - 36 x 98 x 45 mm, wt 100 lbs
Found - Rockway, ON
The carving on this tombstone - unlike that on many of those standing in cemeteries - is still deep and sharp, almost as it was carved in 1849. It is in such wonderful condition because, since 1950, it has been sheltered inside someone's home. It's next stage of life will continue to be indoors.

The "weeping willow" at the top, was a common decorative motif on early Canadian pioneer tombstones, as were carvings of a dove, a lamb, or clasped hands.

The "open book," lower right, is perfect symbolism for two young boys, denoting a righteous life lived for all to see, as well as a life unfulfilled, sadly, with too many blank pages.

This tombstone is extremely heavy, and has a long tongue on the bottom to anchor it into the ground. In spite of that, the extreme weight of limestone tombstones had them leaning over in time. Many toppled and were broken. Often cemetery workers would then just straighten them out and let them lie there, to spare the expense of bringing in a stone mason to repair broken sections. Today there are as many of these early stones lying down as standing up. Unfortunately, by laying on the ground, they deteriorated even faster, as mosses, lichens, insects, and pooling water, went to work on the surface.

Why this tombstone became available is unknown. Possibly the cemetery was moved to accommodate a housing development, or a church and churchyard were sold off. We will investigate and report back.

Limestone Tombstones: It is extremely rare to find, for sale, a pioneer tombstone from early days in Canada.

Left is a wonderful specimen we discovered recently at an Ontario auction.

Limestone tombstones like this are found, of course, in many cemeteries, scattered across the places were early pioneer settlements were first established in eastern Canada.

Unfortunately, stones there are often extremely badly worn after 150 years of exposure to wind and rain. Many are impossible to read anymore.

The corrosive effects of acid rain has accelerated the deterioration in cemeteries located close to where chemicals are carried by the wind or clouds spew out acid rain.

Heritage cemetery groups have logged many of the old tombstones so future generations of Canadians have a permanent record of what they once said.

Family Plots: The earliest cemeteries in Canada were simply family plots adjacent to the home. As settlement filled in the wilderness, these were gradually closed down after churches with cemeteries became established. Bodies - and tombstones - were then often moved there.

Still, in some areas of Ontario, family cemeteries can sometimes be found, in areas which are too remote to have been harassed by urban or commercial expansion.

There the occupants still sleep on the original family farm though strangers now occupy the rooms where their laughter once echoed off the walls.

This limestone tombstone came from a graveyard very close to the one below.

It is a typical pioneer cemetery in the Niagara Peninsula, and has graves from the early 19th century, including another one, below right, from 1849. This could very well have started as a family grave yard. It shows the mix of standing, and toppled stones whose inscriptions heritage groups are recording for posterity.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure Cast Iron Tombstones: Being able to provide a limestone tombstone for his deceased family members was the wish of every pioneer farmer. But there were problems. The tombstones were expensive to buy because they took hours of labour to quarry, and then carve with motif, names, and a spiritual saying.

Then, with the passing years, they broke and had to be repaired, with strapping of iron, or cement filler. None of this looked great. There had to be a better way...

Cast iron tombstones came to the rescue.

The iron age came in the second half of the 19th century. IK Brunel - who was voted the Second Greatest Briton of all time by the British public - built the world's biggest ship, the Great Eastern, out of iron in the 1850s, as well as bridges. Could iron tombstones be far behind?

Left is a rare cast iron tombstone that turned up at an auction. Why this grave marker came to auction is not known. It is to be hoped that the family upgraded to a more fancy, granite column for Henry...

Cast iron tombstones, dating from the 1870s on, can be found in many eastern Canadian cemeteries.

They had distinct advantages over the old limestone markers.

They were easy to make; just pour the iron into a mould, and wait till it cooled.

Mistakes by carvers, that disfigured or destroyed stone markers, were a thing of the past. Each casting was now perfect.

Cast iron markers were much easier to handle. This one weighs only 21 pounds, whereas its limestone cousin, above, weighs a full, back-breaking, 100 lbs.

Cast iron was indestructible. You couldn't break it if you tried. Limestone tablets were fragile, and could be broken accidentally, in the shop, and often in transit.

Cast Iron Tombstone, 1885
Orig. iron - Size - 32 x 61 cm, wt 21 lbs
Found - Burlington, ON

Vandalism: In the past, time, acid rain, and teenagers who "toppled," and sometimes tippled, were the most destructive agents on Canada's tombstone heritage.

Today it is urban developers, those ruthless businessmen who are paving over thousands of acres of Canada's most fertile pioneer areas with housing and commercial developments.

Canadian heritage societies bemoan constantly, that in spite of laws that prevent it, developers routinely bull doze historic houses - or giant trees - to the ground while the heritage "cease and desist" injunction is on the way to being served. For developers getting fined, the pittance that is involved, is regarded as a routine cost of doing business.

Cemetery heritage societies complain of the same cold-hearted attitude from ruthless businessmen who pave over pioneer graveyards - stones and all - when the authorities are not looking. There are many cases of developers flouting the law, when, during excavation, they come upon a pioneer or Indian graveyard. They tell their excavation workers to dummy up, quickly cover up the remains, and put the concrete driveway on top. And employees, who want to keep their jobs, do.

For far too many developers, heritage graveyards, containing the bodies of our departed Aboriginal or pioneer ancestors, have no value unless they are paved over with concrete, and have a money-generating high-rise condo or a car wash on top of them.

So Canada's pioneer cemeteries continue to shrink, or disappear completely. In many places farmers encroach, gathering up broken and fallen stones and cementing them, side by side, into a memorial wall, while taking over the ground on which they once stood, as agricultural land. They claim the crops grow especially well in that area...

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure  

Eino Panula's Grave Marker, Titanic Plot, Halifax. NS Alma Paulson's Grave Marker, Titanic Plot, Halifax. NS
Orig. granite - Size - 1.45 m
Found - Halifax, Nova Scotia
Orig. granite - Size - 46 x 76 cm
Found - Halifax, Nova Scotia
Eino Panula identified 2002 through DNA.

The dangers of ocean travel from Europe were so great that the only piece of Canada untold thousands of immigrants ever got was a burial plot... if they were lucky.

Some found no grave at all; some only nameless ones. The unknown child above had life suddenly snuffed out...

This baby was finally identified by DNA, in 2002, as Eino Panula, from Finland.

Alma Paulson

Alma was 26, with four youngsters but full of hope for a bright future when she lost it all on RMS Titanic.

She had been bound from Sweden for the US, to join her husband. When the ship sank it took so much time to dress the children most of the lifeboats had gone. Trying to board an awkwardly placed boat, the children fell in the water and disappeared. Only Alma's body was found.

The graves are always adorned with flowers from visiting school children. (Her husband died in 1964.)

Go to Tombstones Victorian


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Great Canadian Heritage Discoveries
More important Canadian antique memorabilia the Museum has recently preserved.

Great Canadian Tombstones










































































































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