Burial customs, past and present: ‘How they so softly rest’

By Ian McKechnie

'How They So Softly Rest:' Burial customs, past and present
Riverside Cemetery, Lindsay. Photo: Ian McKechnie.

In 1991, the remains of an Indigenous man which had been unearthed in a Peterborough parking lot some three decades earlier were re-interred in the Curve Lake Cemetery. The actual interment was preceded by a Feast of the Living, with a sweet grass and sage smudge performed by four pipe carriers, and food prepared to accompany the deceased to the land of spirits. The following day, more smudging, honour songs, and offerings of tobacco accompanied the reburial of these 2,000 year-old remains. For the First Peoples, this Indigenous man was now on his way to meet his ancestors, as per their burial customs.

Columnist Ian McKechnie.

For members of the Islamic faith, burial takes place within 24 hours. Equality is a hallmark of Islamic burial customs says Abdul Sangrar, of Masjid Lindsay, also known as the Islamic Center Lindsay. Regardless of the deceased person’s station in life, whether rich or poor, they are covered in a white cloth and buried in a plain box, the body facing Mecca. Islamic theology surrounding burial thus dictates how plots are purchased; buried remains must — in this part of the world — face northeast.

For Christians, the faithful departed repose in Paradise, a place of rest and refreshment. Building on Jewish thought, however, many Christians also believe in the resurrection of the body. One day, according to Christian theology, the whole world will be remade and (as Handel’s Messiah puts it) “the dead will be raised incorruptible.”

James McQuarrie, who farmed in Eldon Township and died in 1886, had his remains “interred in McEachern’s burying ground, east of Argyle, to await the glorious resurrection of the dead,” as noted in his obituary. Katherine McKinnon — who saw a great deal of death in her work as a nursing sister during the First World War — was interred in Riverside Cemetery in Lindsay in 1977 beneath a stone which reads, “Resting Till The Resurrection Morn.” (This traditional emphasis on the resurrection of the body also explains why many burials at cemeteries across the municipality customarily face east: According to early Christian belief, the dead will be raised to face the new Jerusalem at the second coming of Christ.)

How we bury our dead, where we bury them, what rites or customs accompany burial, and what we say in obituaries and on grave markers, are all products of many thousands of years of human history. While ancient practices are still commonplace, the people entrusted with bearing the deceased to their final resting place have also had to adapt to changing worldviews and contemporary cultural norms.

“Cremation has become more of a tradition,” says Linden Mackey, whose grandfather arrived in Lindsay in 1916, got off the train with a desk and bed, and transformed an existing furniture and funeral supply company into Mackey’s Funeral Home. “We’re constantly searching for more ways to be innovative in memorializing a person’s life,” says Mackey.

The undertaker’s craft has also evolved over time. Cabinetmakers created not only furniture and fittings for homes, but also coffins and caskets. (Coffins are often simpler in design and are usually tapered at each end, whereas a casket is rectangular.) “My Grandfather Tangney was in the furniture business, but also in the funeral business,” recalls Marg Wansbrough, who remembers going with her father to check graves in preparation for burial. John McNeely McCrea of Omemee, himself the son of a furniture maker, spent two decades crafting miniatures out of wood — one of which depicts a 19th-century cabinetmaker’s workshop, complete with a miniature coffin.

As the county grew, the undertaking business moved from cabinetmaker’s shop to factory floor. In 1925, a group of local businessmen including James Mackey, Charles Ferguson, Jimmy Arnold and William Varcoe laid the groundwork of what became Northern Casket. A combination of access to reasonably-priced lumber coming in from the north and access to Lindsay’s extensive rail connections ensured that the company would grow. The firm was formally founded in October of 1926, and its first casket was produced on February 2, 1927. Initially, the company used space in Horn Bros. Woollen Mill on William Street; later, it expanded to a facility on King Street, and is today based at 165 St. Peter Street. Northern Casket is no stranger to the forces of change, with coffins giving way to caskets in the early years, and urns now being produced under the North Urn brand to satisfy demand for cremation over traditional burial. Cremation, says Northern Casket’s Gord Ferguson, really came into vogue around the early 1990s and demand hasn’t let up.

It’s a point not lost on Tim Godfrey, the general manager of Riverside Cemetery. He started working in the grounds department and today oversees not only traditional burials but also the only crematorium in the City of Kawartha Lakes. He estimates that Riverside handles about 600 cremations a year, but conducts only about 60 traditional burials in the same time period. Riverside, which in 2020 will be marking its 150th anniversary, still has another 300 or more years before it will be at capacity, says Godfrey. According to the City’s website, there are 15 active cemeteries in Kawartha Lakes, as well as many inactive historic cemeteries. These beautiful sites are sometimes located on farms or other private property, and many have geocaches on them to promote exploration of local history.

A stroll through Riverside Cemetery today reveals not only the names of people who made their mark in the history of our community; it also reveals, however subtly, shifts in belief and practice which define burial customs in Kawartha Lakes. “How they so softly rest, all in their silent graves,” wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1839. The dead may rest, in graves known and unknown, but the funeral industry marches on, always changing to meet the needs of the consumer.

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