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Lost and forgotten

Erosion and lack of records means some graves can no longer be identified.

By: Jaymie L. White Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Evelyn Lilly stands beside a cross now bearing a small plaque that honours the final resting place of her baby sister. Jean Louise Lilly died when she was six months old, and her actualgravesite has been lost. – © Rosalyn Roy / Wreckhouse Press Inc.

SOUTHWEST COAST — Cemeteries hold special significance for families of loved ones who have passed. They offer a place to visit and remember, but with the passage of time, sometimes the names and even locations of the deceased get lost. This is the case with some older cemeteries in the region. With wind, rain, and snow, headstones can become damaged, unreadable or lost. In some cases individual gravesites have been moved to larger, newer cemeteries, and before records were able to be computerized and correctly filed, it sometimes proved impossible to keep track of the re-interred.

Evelyn Lilly had a baby sister, Jean Louise, who passed away in 1952 and was buried in the old High Street cemetery. Once she was moved, Lilly was unaware of where the new grave was, but she had learned facts about the re-interment from speaking with family.

“Talking about family things, we knew we had a sister and she had died when she was six months old,” said Lilly.

Lilly said her grandson was instrumental in ensuring that her sister would not be forgotten even though the true location of her sister’s gravesite remains a mystery.

“My grandson, Silas, was interested in knowing about the past, folks in the family. I told him all I knew, which is what Mom had said, that Jean Louise died when she was six months old from one of the childhood diseases that was going around at the time. It could’ve been smallpox or typhoid, but we saw all the unmarked graves up at the cemetery because he used to go visit Nan and Pop, and he chose one and said that would be her grave.”

At her grandson’s suggestion, she requested and received permission to place a small plaque on one of the unmarked graves for Jean Louise, which means a great deal to Lilly.

“I think everybody should have a marker. People nowadays get cremated and get put on the mantle or whatever, but have nothing out around for all the descendants to be remembered.”

Bernice Marks kept the books at St. Ann’s Parish in Codroy Valley for over 30 years.

“When I took over, I kept a record of everyone that died and all that, but before that it was only what they kept over at the priest house,” said Marks.

Now that she has retired, Marks is confident that her successor, Lydwena MacArthur, will continue that work.

“She’s keeping a record like I kept a record of everyone that died,” said Marks. “Lydwena’s good and I couldn’t think of anybody else that I’d want to ask to take over.”

The process of keeping track of these records is relatively simple.

“I would keep a record of when they died, where they were placing the cemetery. We’ve got 11 rows up in the new cemetery and everyone is marked out and put in the book. You could look in our books and find anyone,” said Marks. “I didn’t find it hard. If somebody passed away or came and bought a plot, things like that, then you just mark it in the book and that was it.”

Throughout her years with the church committee, Marks did what she could to maintain the integrity of the graves.

“When I’d see something down, I would just contact the repairman and he would come and fix it up.To me, our graveyards were kept in pretty good shape over the years.We keep on track of stuff like that and I try to keep them in decent shape,” said Marks. “Anything that came up to be done, there were always finances to do it. We fixed it up, fenced it in, kept the roads in good condition, kept it mowed every week.”

There is one cemetery that needed more work than the others, and it’s the older cemeteries that pose problems for identification.

“The old one in Searston needed a lot of maintenance and Edward Ryan saw to that because he was the president. There were a lot of names missing that will never be found because I think years ago somebody, when they went to clean up, there were markers down and they just didn’t put them back up. So there are a few graves, especially in Searston, in the old one, where names are missing.”

The process Marks used to keep track of every burial record was something that simply wasn’t done in years prior.

“Years ago the committee never kept track. When I took over, I would take the books and mark everything down. Back 25-30 years there were probably only one or two on the committee,” said Marks. “The committee got a little more enforced 25 years ago and they kept better track of stuff. The last 28 years, anyone that is buried in the cemetery is acknowledged. It’s all written down where they are.”

The placement of graves also factors into keeping proper records.

“In the new graveyard people are in rows, but before they were dropped everywhere,” said Marks.“I guess it was hard to keep track of that.”

Reverend Jane Allen, Rector of St.James Anglican Church in Port aux Basques, said there are cemeteries in the community where many names are missing and may never be found.

“At Barachois Hill there’s roughly two lines up there with the white crosses that we really don’t know who is buried there, because those were removed from the cemetery at High Street and carried up there when the road was being put through,” said Allen. “Actually, I’m not sure, but I’ve been told, that it was under the cover of darkness.”

Allen explained that technology today, which makes the whole re￾cording process a lot more streamlined, wasn’t there before.

“Back then you wouldn’t have like what we’ve got today. For instance, at Barachois Hill, everybody that goes into that cemetery is also filled in down here on the computer. There were no computers. I don’t know if we went down and made some inquiries if we would even figure out who it was.”

And the weather has taken a harsh toll on the headstones that remain, so they are no longer legible.Even the gravesites themselves are at risk thanks to coastal erosion.

“As for the other graves, I don’t know if any of them are lost in that sense, but I do know there’s one over on Grand Bay West beach that I’ve heard the waves are coming in and washing out. Same with Cape Ray,” explained Allen. “With time that is going to get worse too, especially High Street. It’s all bog and all downhill.”

Allen believes, as time goes on and memories fade, it adds to the difficulty with identification.

“I’ve had a lady come to me and she was pretty sure where her two children were buried at the time, and we went to the cemetery twice to try to find the markers, but the markers weren’t to be found,” said Allen. “And sometimes, as we get older, our memories don’t last that long, but this lady said she was pretty sure her children were on such and such a side and they were buried next to each other, but we went through everything and we had everybody go up and mow the grass and that, but we couldn’t find any markers.”

Regardless of how daunting the task may seem, Allen doesn’t think it is impossible to uncover some of those names that have been lost.

“I don’t know if it’s unsolvable. Say we had a bunch of students that went to High Street Cemetery.We do know the people that were buried there. We do have records of everybody that was buried at our church. If somebody went to there and sorted out what markers were there, what graves were there, we may have a fair idea who was moved down below. But that would be time consuming and a lot of work.”

Many lost at sea near Port aux Basques were also buried in the cemeteries.

“Over on Baird Street, a ship went down and they brought the bodies in and buried them over on Baird Street. Some of them have markers and some don’t. We’ll probably never know who they were,” said Allen.“It’s part of the cycle of time, but it bothers me in the extent of, if there were family still alive and family wanted to see where their loved one was, yes, it would bother me that we couldn’t find them. But in my own beliefs, I do believe that the bodies have since decayed to almost nothing, but the soul is gone to heaven. It has ascended.”

Allen said a lot of the responsibility for the maintenance of the graves doesn’t fall to the parish.

“There’s not much I can do about the markers falling down because we leave it with the family to keep them up, and unfortunately, once the family dies off, a lot of the things get destroyed, not now as it did back then. Now, everything has records, we’ve got books, and things are being done the right and proper way.”

Allen also has a family member whose grave location is unknown in the Avalon Lane cemetery.

“It’s said there are no records of who are in those graves although, I personally remember my mom saying my granddad is buried over there. It was her dad, so we would go over. I have not been over to that graveyard since my mom passed and she has been gone for 30-odd years. Basically I would say there is no recognizable signs of what my grandfather’s grave looked like.”

Allen worries that, as time goes on, even more names could be lost because it seems less likely that later generations will do the work to maintain these burial places.

“It’s going to be ten times worse when you think of the kids today.They’re not the least bit interested in making sure that people’s records are kept or even thinking about graveyards,” said Allen. “And to be honest, most people today are going with cremation, which some is good because they’re going on top of the ground in the columbariums. I remember going to Saint Pierre and Miquelon and walking amongst the tombs there, and you could almost make something out of who was there, but even there some of the names have gone off the tombs.So basically, it’s family that has to keep these things up, and with family deteriorating it’s going to be sad, maybe not this year, not next year, but maybe in 25-30 years. I can’t see my children going up and trying to maintain my grandparents or my mother and father’s or their grandparent’s graves and headstones.”

Allen said the parish does what it can to maintain their cemeteries, but it’s simply impossible to do it all themselves.

“We have one caretaker who keeps the graves mowed in the summertime. There’s no way in God’s creation that he can do all those graves. It’s up to the family and the family can simply go up, make sure the graves are well kept. They don’t have to go often, maybe once in the beginning of the year, look at the headstones. Maybe they’ll want to get a marker or a little bottle of paint, re-do the paint on the names,” suggested Allen. “I did that in the High Street Cemetery for my grandmother and brother who are up there and they are still in pretty good shape. The headstones are still standing because when they did fall, we put it back up, but when I go, I can say goodbye to that. Once it falls, it falls. Once it fades, it fades.”

Allen said the current cemetery is filling up fast, which means expansion will soon be necessary.

“There are a lot of people, not only from St. James but Anglican people from the Grand Bay area and places being buried at St. James cemetery because of the land. There’s not a lot of water into it, but most grounds, no matter where you go, there’s some sort of bog. We’re extending and there is no bog where we’re extending because it’s all filled in with gravel and everything,” said Allen. “It’s a big expense to keep extending cemeteries and things like that, and that’s why people do have to pay for their plots, because we do have to extend and take care of them.”

On Wednesday, Dec. 7, Lilly ventured up to the St. James Anglican Cemetery where her parents, brother and other relatives are laid to rest.Before visiting them she went to visit a small, white, unmarked cross, chosen by her grandson. There she screwed on a small plaque that bears Jean Louise Lilly’s date of birth and death.

“The plan is to put in a little solar light next,” said Lilly.

She’s a country music fan and always recalls the Dolly Parton song, ‘Our Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark’ whenever she thinks of the baby sister she never really got the chance to know.

“It’s just a song, but I’m going to get her that light.”

Allen hopes that getting this information out there will shed new light on the locations of many individuals buried. Her work to identify Jean Louise’s date of birth and death has made a difference for Evelyn Lilly, who was only a toddler when her baby sister died.

There are two long rows of small, white crosses at the verge of the cemetery’s parking lot that bear no names. With one claimed for Jean Louise, there are still 56 graves that have no marker, though a couple have plastic flowers.

Rev. Allen hopes that more families will be inspired to help try to identify those lost when the graves were relocated, or even claim a plot to care for in their memory.

“Maybe after people read this story more people will come forward and say they know their grandmother or someone was buried in that bottom cemetery, but they’re not there now. Then we can go back and look and see when they were born and when they died.”

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