Introduction The Cemetery Mystique
Cemeteries occupy a unique space in our collective consciousness.
For some, they are places for remembering loved ones and reflecting quietly on our own mortality; for others, they inspire fear with the knowledge that they are most people’s final resting place.
They exist in pop culture as places of mystery and ghosts, haunted by wraiths of the past and visions of the future, or even inhabited by ghouls and the undead.
The reality of cemeteries is that, while the location itself may be mundane, they are places that present a link to the past, whether personal or on a larger scale.
Chapter One The Historian
Local historian and author Harry Sanders has lived a life immersed in the interesting lives of other people.
Before his family moved to Calgary, his father owned an old hotel in Drumheller, which sparked Sanders’ interest in history. His father sold the hotel when Sanders was eight years old, and it burned down five years later.
“I had known vague details about the hotel’s history, but when it burned down, the local paper in Drumheller, the Drumheller Mail, told a little more of the story,” said Sanders.
“That intrigued me, so I started researching it to satisfy my own curiosity.”
He later took an honours BA in history at the University of Calgary, and worked at the City of Calgary Archives, the Glenbow Archives, and the Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta.
For the past few decades, he has worked as a historical consultant and freelance writer. He also wrote a column for the Calgary Sun for almost four years, and ran a local history quiz on CBC Radio for a few years.
“They had me on each week to do a multiple-choice, lighthearted quiz on local history,” said Sanders.
He was also the historian laureate of Calgary from 2012-2013, the same year Calgary was declared a cultural capital of Canada.
However, his interest in cemeteries didn’t really emerge until 1990, when the Chinook County Historical Society, of which Sanders is a longtime, active member, put together a tour of Union Cemetery.
“It fascinated me, and it was a popular program that sparked my interest in cemeteries.”
Afterwards, Sanders was approached by a local publisher and asked to write a book on Union Cemetery and the lives of some of the people buried there.
“It was Calgary’s Historic Union Cemetery: A Walking Guide, and it was a lot of fun to research.”
Unfortunately, sales of Sanders’ book were not very high, which he attributes to people’s fear of their own mortality.
“To read a book about a cemetery – it’s a ‘negative’ thing. It reminds you of your mortality; this is a ‘sad book’ because these people died, and it’s painful to me to consider it because someday I will die.”
However, he considers cemeteries to be tangible connections to the past, and described his book as being about “interesting lives.”
“It’s not sad, it’s interesting.”
According to Sanders, history is a construct, a narrative that people create and find meaning in. History isn’t what happened in the past; that has come and gone. What remains is the physical – buildings, archives, museum pieces. As an historian, making contact with the past is very satisfying for Sanders.
“To me, a cemetery is a direct point of contact. This is the last resting place of the people that we want to know about.
“It would be nice if people remembered us. How can we expect that if we don’t remember those who came before we did?”
Chapter Two Union Cemetery
As Harry Sanders understands it, burial in the ground is not something that Canada’s Indigenous peoples practiced prior European contact.
When Calgary was being colonized, the mounted police and Roman Catholic missionaries arrived around the same time.
“The Roman Catholics established a cemetery, which is just south of the old Holy Cross Hospital. It was later moved,” said Sanders.
The mounted police and other settlers who were not Catholic did not have their own cemetery. Prior to the construction of Union Cemetery, people were buried either in unconsecrated ground, at was then the edge of town, or were interred in unconsecrated areas of the Catholic cemetery.
“Calgary was incorporated as a town in 1884, and the town council appealed to Ottawa for a grant of land for a hospital and one for a cemetery,” said Sanders.
Both were outside the city limits. The Protestant cemetery was originally established at Shaganappi Point, where Shagnappi Golf Course is now.
“They started burying Protestants at Shaganppi Point, but it was a long way from Calgary, and reportedly, the soil was rocky and not suitable.”
The town council then decided to purchase a more fitting property, buying Augustus Carney’s hillside farm. He served as the cemetery’s first caretaker.
The first burial at the new location took place in 1890.
“In the summer of 1892, it was ready for use, and the town made an offer to citizens, that if they would go and disinter their own relatives, and haul them from Shagnappi to Union Cemetery, they got a free plot and a free burial.
“That was a three-month deal, so they relocated 75 graves.”
Calgary became a city in 1894. Any bodies that remained at Shaganappi Point stayed there until 1911, when the city decided to build the golf course. At city expense, they moved the remaining bodies.
In 1897, the Catholic cemetery was relocated to where St. Mary’s Cemetery is now, Erlton St. and 31 Ave. S.W.
“What I find interesting is that, as an entity, the Catholic cemetery is the older entity, but as a physical place, the Protestant one is the older one,” said Sanders.
The southernmost corner of Union Cemetery was supposed to be the potter’s field: the area for criminals, poor people, and the unknown to be buried. While these are normally at the edges of cemeteries, the expansion of Union Cemetery means that it is between two sections.
The term “potter’s field” is a reference to a story from after the crucifixion of Jesus.
“I don’t know if it’s in the New Testament or if it’s apocryphal, but Judas was paid 30 shekels of silver when he betrayed Jesus,” said Sanders.
“Then, he was remorseful and hanged himself. What happened to the 30 shekels?”
According to the story, the money was used to buy a field with clay in it – a potter’s field. It was established as a cemetery for those who were friendless, unknown, or criminals, who might not otherwise be buried properly.
“Being Jewish, I know that this is supposed to be the greatest deed of kindness that you can do – to bury someone, because it’s the one thing for which they cannot thank you,” said Sanders.
Most of the graves are oriented east-west, which is a reference to resurrection.
Despite the new location, winter burials continued to present a problem, so a mortuary was constructed in 1908. The ground level is the historic chapel that was used for graveside services, while the crypt below held bodies until the spring thaw meant they could be buried in the ground. However, winter burials changed with the advent of power tools.
During the First World War, many soldiers were buried in Union Cemetery, in a location called the Field of Honour.
“It’s source material for history, but it’s also something tactile – it has interpretive value,” said Sanders.
“If you like that sort of thing, it’s got an emotional value. We can commune with the people that came before us.”
One notable feature of Union Cemetery is its columbarium. A columbarium, from the Latin word for ‘dove’ (columba), is a structure built to hold cremated remains. Union Cemetery’s columbarium was installed in 2004, according to Joe Blunden, cemeteries foreman and longtime cemetery employee.
“It’s a cremation alternative to earth burial,” said Gary Daudlin, cemeteries superintendent for the City of Calgary.
“A columbarium is a sort of building that is designed, so it’s a feature within the cemetery.”
Some columbaria are large and ornate, while others are smaller. They’re usually built of concrete or aluminum framing with granite exteriors.
“If you imagine a columbarium being similar to an apartment building, where you have a series of floors, a series of levels, each niche would represent an apartment within that apartment building,” said Daudlin.
The names of the deceased are displayed on the doors of the niches. Columbaria are a good way to reduce the “ground footprint” and hold more cremated remains than single graves.
Since Union Cemetery has no land left for burials, the columbarium gives people an opportunity to be laid to rest in the same place as family members, something many people take comfort in.
“This industry is all about helping,” said Daudlin.
“We provide a service that is helpful to people and their grief process.”
Humans have been cremating the dead since around 20,000 B.C.E. Contrary to what people might think, the remains of a cremation are not ashes: they’re actually bone fragments, ground to a fine powder, according to Clifford Pickover in his book Death and the Afterlife: A Chronological Journey from Cremation to Quantum Resurrection.
Union Cemetery is the final resting place of several key figures in Calgary’s history, including:
- John Ware
- Peter Lougheed and family
- A. E. Cross
- James Macleod
- Morris Shumiatcher
Chapter Three Equinox Vigil
For Sharon Stevens, founder, curator, and producer of the annual Equinox Vigil, rituals play a vital role in the grieving process.
The idea for the vigil began with her father’s death 25 years ago. Despite her family’s religious background, Stevens felt as though something was missing. She described herself as more spiritual than religious.
“I just felt like I didn’t have any way to honour or celebrate him,” she said.
“The funeral didn’t help me honour him in a way that I could relate to.”
In 2006, she attended a conference with a talk held by the artists-in-residence of the Vancouver cemeteries. She mentored with the two artists, who helped her organize the first Vigil.
“Part of what I’ve been doing over the last few years is to raise awareness that you can go to cemeteries for more than just funerals.”
The Vigil, which has been held on the autumnal equinox at Union Cemetery the past for seven years, is “an artist-led event to honour the dead in the cemetery in the cemetery,” according to Stevens. Attendance is usually around 500 people.
“It’s a lovely evening of remembrance,” said Stevens.
Family-friendly and free, it includes visual art installations, poetry, live music, choirs, lanterns, and processions. Harry Sanders, the historian, does a history reading, and attendees can even enter their loved ones’ names in the digital shrine, which is projected on a screen.
“We light up the cemetery and make it a beautiful place.”
As an artist herself, she has many contacts in the Calgary arts community, and the Vigil has featured artists from all over Canada, including Edmonton, Halifax, and Toronto.
As the event has become more widely-known, artists also approach her and ask to have their work featured.
Stevens described the event as being similar to other celebrations held around the globe, such as Mexico’s Día de Muertos, which begins Oct. 31 and ends Nov. 2.
“Lots of people have heard of the Day of the Dead,” said Stevens.
“People go to the graveyard, have a party, and make the food that their deceased loved ones liked.
“You build an altar in your home with specific flowers, and you bake specific bread.”
Similar customs of cemetery visitation and gathering exist in Eastern Europe.
“Here in Canada, in North America, we haven’t really adopted any of those things.”
Therefore, the most important part of the Equinox Vigil, for Stevens, is providing a space for people to grieve, remember, and feel supported.
“They feel adrift; they feel at a loss when someone dies.
“People are yearning to get together and de-mystify death.”
In a world increasingly obsessed with immortality, death has been “sanitized,” something that has happened in the last few decades.
Stevens’ mother, who is in her 80s, grew up in a small town, and had a closer relationship with death than many do today.
“When someone died in the town, they put them in the living room and people came and paid their respects,” Stevens said.
“She saw a dead body before she was 10 years old. It was normalized as part of life.”
The Equinox Vigil is intended to let people draw back the curtain that conceals death, pay their respects, and feel that their grief belongs to the community.
“We call it a sanctuary for tender feelings,” said Stevens.
“We’re not crass – there’s no ghosts. People feel sad but enriched.”
Unfortunately, the growth of the Vigil over the years could result in its ending.
“It’s an annual event put on by a grassroots group of people, my friends, and my family. I raise money for it every year, so it is a large responsibility.”
Since the event is free to attend, Stevens is unsure how long it can keep going without sponsorship of some kind.
“It’s getting too big for a gaggle of people to put it on every year.”
Conclusion A Place of Rest
H.P. Lovecraft wrote that “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
With the way Western society has distanced itself from death and its processes, death is an unknown and, therefore, feared entity. However, it doesn’t have to be.
There has been an increased interest in closing the distance: more people are coming to see cemeteries as places not only to remember loved ones, but places of recreation. Union Cemetery’s historic chapel has even been the site of two weddings in recent years.
Taking the time to learn the history of local cemeteries can be a valuable exercise, teaching the appreciation of the now and providing tangible connections to the past.