Through history’s eyes: Exploring forgotten cemeteries

By Ian McKechnie

Blakely Farm Cemetery. Photo: Ian McKechnie.

I got lost as I was looking for it — the Blakely Farm cemetery, that is.

When I ought to have gone due south on Old Mill Road in the former Ops Township, I instead made a left turn and ended up cycling through some of the most spectacular scenery in this part of Kawartha Lakes.

Much of the rural infrastructure I pass — barns, farmhouses, split-rail fences — has scarcely changed in the last century or so.

Nor have the views across the countryside, which members of the Blakely family no doubt enjoyed as they toiled in their fields many years before Canadian Confederation.

After finding my way back to Old Mill Road, I shift into low gear to climb the hills to reach my destination. I take a sip of water and make my way gingerly through the long grass in the ditch at the side of the road.

Behind a page-wire fence is an assortment of marble headstones, all canted over at awkward angles and glistening in the late afternoon sun. I trudge over to the metal gate and undo the chain that keeps it well secured. Once inside, I step respectfully over and around these ancient memorials, their inscriptions in many cases still amazingly readable:

MARGARET
Wife of
John Blakeley
Died April 15, 1858
Aged 73 Years

Twisting, rusting pieces of metal stick out of the ground in various places, some barely supporting the half a dozen or so markers in this burying ground that dates to 1856.

The Blakely Cemetery is one of just over 30 inactive cemeteries in this area. Defined by the city as one which no longer has any lots for sale and no longer sees any burials, many of these inactive burying grounds haven’t seen an interment in well over a century and a half.

Ballyduff Presbyterian Church Cemetery. Photo: Ian McKechnie.

Inactive cemeteries — along with the still-active privately maintained cemeteries, municipally run rural graveyards, and those adjacent to many country churches — offer some of the most peaceful and intriguing places to travel to on an afternoon outing over the summer months. Unlike Lindsay’s Riverside Cemetery, which covers some 60 acres, the vast majority of these smaller cemeteries can be explored in an hour or less. They are also, for the most part, located adjacent to some of the municipality’s quieter roads; the chirping of birds, a light breeze, or the distant hum of farm equipment being the only sounds interrupting the peace and quiet.

Of the inactive cemeteries, the vast majority are located on privately owned land, often farms, and are not readily visible from the roadside. Care should be taken to respect the privacy of these properties. In addition to the Blakely Cemetery at 912 Old Mill Road, publicly accessible inactive cemeteries include the old St. James Anglican Church Cemetery on Church Hill in Fenelon Falls; McLaren’s Cemetery at 1040 Monarch Road; and the Bethel Old Methodist burying ground at the northwest corner of Golf Course Road and Highway 35 South. Both active and inactive cemeteries are often well-signed and open for exploring from 8 a.m. until sundown.

Quite apart from their being a source of information for genealogists, these rural cemeteries offers lessons in geography, theology and anthropology. A 161-year-old marble stone in Manvers Township’s Ballyduff Presbyterian Church Cemetery announces the name of a settler from County Cavan, in Ireland; an obelisk (a tall pyramidal monument) in the municipally run Argyle Cemetery informs passersby that Neil McEachern (d. 1875) was a native of Argyleshire, Scotland. One could almost virtually tour the British Isles merely by studying the inscriptions in these stones.

The symbols and words inscribed on headstones can often give us clues about the person they memorialize, their age at death and their worldview. A weeping willow is very common on stones marking the final resting places of adults; a lamb almost assuredly denotes the burial of a child. Other universally used symbols include doves, fingers pointing heavenward and urns draped in cloth. During the 19th century, many young people succumbed to disease, death in childbirth and farming accidents, and the inscriptions often tried to soften the blow through somewhat awkward verses that are heartbreaking to read, as on the marker of a two-year-old in McLaren’s Cemetery:

Sleep on sweet child
And take thy rest
God called thee home
He thought it best

Other stones in the municipality, while acknowledging that death is inevitable, insist that it is merely a temporary time of waiting before resurrection and re-creation — however one might define that: “I am not dead, but sleeping” reads a defiant inscription on an obelisk in the Argyle Cemetery.

Although many of the inactive and rural cemeteries have signs erected by the city on their periphery that give a date of establishment, it is often possible to discern this merely by looking at the materials used for the monuments. McLaren’s Cemetery, dating all the way back to 1834, consists almost entirely of greying marble slabs stretching out to three, four, or even five feet in length. All but a few of these lie flat in the ground, many slowly disappearing beneath the sod or partially hidden by a layer of lichen. Marble markers are among the earliest in Ontario and were common through the 1870s. Thereafter, polished granite became the norm.

As picturesque as these ancient stones are, the imperfections that make them so photogenic also betray fragility. Over the years, various techniques have been used to stabilize these artefacts of an earlier age. Dating to 1862, the Bethel Old Methodist Cemetery is one example of a restoration effort in which all of the headstones have been transplanted from their original plots and mounted together in one corner of the property. Though well-meaning, this method, divorces the headstones from the burials they were intended to mark.

Old cemeteries have become cliches in the genre of Gothic literature and are admittedly a little creepy: on entering McIndoo’s Cemetery, a private burial ground on Linden Valley Road near Woodville, the gate creaks loud enough to stir the dead. But enter the gate I do with thanksgiving in my heart — for these tranquil places which have been so beautifully preserved across Kawartha Lakes, and for those whose lives are memorialized therein.

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