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Missisquoi: Cemeteries in Crisis

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medium_harvey.cemetery1.jpg--July 1, 2008

For a number of years, the Missisquoi Historical Society in Stanbridge East has been looking after a number of “orphaned cemeteries” in what was once known as Missisquoi County. The society has provided basic maintenance – essentially regular grass mowing -- at no fewer than seventeen pioneer burial grounds. Most of these sites date back to the early 1800s when the first settlers were arriving in this part of Quebec. A number of these sites suffered neglect over the years before being taken under our wing. Some of them are on private property; title to others is sketchy at best.

Last fall, the Missisquoi Historical Society jumped at the opportunity to participate in the Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network’s “Inventory of Cemeteries at Risk,” a key part of QAHN’s Cemetery Heritage Inventory and Restoration Initiative (CHIRI). We felt that a proper survey of the cemeteries in our part of the province was long overdue. Thus, MHS archivist Judy Antle and myself began the task of visiting each cemetery that we had records for -- not just those that we had been looking after, but all of them. Armed with cameras and a detailed grading system developed by QAHN, we soon found ourselves crisscrossing Missisquoi County in search of graveyards that few if anyone had visited in years. Our findings have been illuminating if not alarming.

Among other things, we discovered that although conservation was being attempted in some cemeteries, not all of it has been good. Gravestone restoration projects have not been well funded and have involved unpaid volunteers working without guidance. It would appear that the theory that “it is better to do something than nothing” is being practiced at some sites resulting in lost stones and lost information. The Missisquoi Historical Society has in the past been guilty of attempting repairs without proper training and we find ourselves uncertain as to how to properly repair stones with a limited budget. In the Mandigo Corner and the Harvey burial grounds, the caretakers obviously have no idea how to conduct repairs and their solution has been simply to stack stones in a corner of the graveyard.

It was disappointing to discover that even though a cemetery may have a legal body overseeing it, this does not mean that basic maintenance, landscaping, security or active preservation are being conducted. In the Pike River Protestant Cemetery, for example, which apparently has a cemetery corporation, the site is poorly maintained and overgrown and no recent attempts have been made to repair broken stones.

medium_hastings.cemetery.jpgIt was also difficult to determine what legal body has jurisdiction over some sites. This will mean time on our part to discover who or what organization (if any) is safeguarding these graveyards. We are almost hesitant to begin knocking on doors as we may well discover that no one will be found and that our list of sites to maintain will multiply. This will be an increased burden financially and will place added pressure on our small group of volunteers. Prior to conducting this inventory, the Missisquoi Historical Society’s assumption had been that the seventeen sites we maintain represent about half of the cemeteries in the county. As we have now identified at least sixty-four burial grounds, we see that this is far from the case. And although it has been invaluable to identify more sites, it is to our chagrin that we realize that many of these sites will require a caretaker. The question facing us now is how do we go about securing funds to maintain the cemeteries we already oversee, let alone funds to allow us to adopt new ones?

It has been interesting to discover that the materials used in gravestones, such as marble and limestone, have either become a lasting tribute to the individuals of this county or have weathered into obscurity. It would be useful to re-examine the stones to determine if local materials have withstood the passage of time better than imported stone. It has also been fascinating to examine the stones from an artistic point of view. Although this study did not call for such observations, the motifs, carvings and “folk art” that appear on gravestones should also be recorded in a digital format as they reflect the local handiwork, attitudes and philosophies of the time. Some carvings are quite primitive; others are exceptional. Perhaps some of these designs are unique to the Eastern Townships. A study of epitaphs would also be intriguing. But again, volunteer time and project funding would be required.

Our survey has indicated to us which sites were well documented in terms of their genealogical content and which sites have been neglected. We have also determined that a number of sites need to be re-visited so that vital statistics can be recorded. Unfortunately, this should probably have been done fifty years ago, since many gravestones are now illegible due to weather, acid rain, stone decay and neglect. At the Russell burial ground, in Saint-Armand, rows of stones no longer bear the names or dates of some of our very earliest settlers.

It has been worrisome to find that some sites cannot be located at all. Old maps were in our archives, but when it came time to visit these sites, we were sometimes frustrated in our search. Making things even more difficult, some sites seem to have been renamed. The Bullsberg site, north of Cowansville, for example, may be the Friends site, as indicated on the sign. If this is not the case, then we were unable to locate the Bullsberg site. Once again, a closer search will be required on our part. Conversations with local people may prove useful but more time and volunteers will be needed.

Levels of security varied from cemetery to cemetery. Some sites were well protected with fences and gates, with signs indicating the name of the cemetery, but many had very little safeguards in place. Even graveyards located beside churches were not necessarily secure. The Bedford Protestant Cemetery, for one, faces vandalism almost annually. Constant repairs to stones are becoming a financial strain on the Bedford Cemetery Corporation.

medium_mandigo.brockville.cemetery.jpgQuite a few sites were located on private land. Here again, some landowners were willing to give us permission to visit the site, while others could not be reached. Of course, the fact that a cemetery is located on private land does not mean that it is looked after. The Wing burial ground, which is found in an apple orchard, is ignored by the landowner. The Ten Eyck site, in another orchard, has likely been destroyed.

In summary, of the fifty sites that we have surveyed so far, we have deemed over half to be “at risk.” Typical problems include: cracked and broken stones; lack of maintenance; lack of vital records; vandalism; and destruction by the natural elements. A number of sites have become lost and are therefore in danger of being lost forever. Some sites have governing bodies, but this is no guarantee that these organizations are active or financially capable of maintaining the sites under their control. A lack of able-bodied volunteers is a growing problem everywhere. And a decline in the English-speaking population and in the number of families with ties to local cemeteries are also contributing to the problem.

Even sites under the wing of organizations such as the Missisquoi Historical Society could be considered “at-risk” if adequate new funding cannot be found or if boards of directors change their priorities. “Active” cemeteries also have concerns for the future. In Clarenceville, an elderly couple who no longer want to be responsible for the local cemetery have been unable to convince the municipality to take on the burden. It is still an active site with several more burials expected. The Missisquoi Historical Society is reluctant to take on this added responsibility, as we are not in the business of digging graves. The future of this graveyard is therefore in peril.

Gravestones and cemeteries need to be recognized for the importance resources they are. How fortunate we have been to have participated in QAHN’s Cemetery Heritage Inventory and Restoration Initiative. Our own understanding of sites in this region has increased considerably. So too has our concern for the situation. As a historical society, we face the distressing fact that although our mission is to protect these burial grounds, we have absolutely no funding and very little knowledge of how to solve the growing crisis.