Grave of George McDougall
Alison Jackson Photograph Collection, AJ 1458
The City of Calgary is thinking about offering a new way of burying our dead. With Queen’s Park Cemetery rapidly running out of space, the City is planning for a new cemetery in the city’s southeast. As part of that burial ground they would like to offer a natural burial ground where graves would be dug by hand, bodies would be buried unembalmed and in biodegradable caskets and the land left to go back to its natural state. There would be no grave markers and anyone wishing to find a burial site would be given a GPS unit and the grave co-ordinates. This idea has kicked up a bit of controversy and lead to a bit of trepidation on the part of genealogists everywhere.
Genealogists love to find records and what is more solid and permanent than a grave marker? Genealogical societies the world over dedicate massive amounts of time and energy to transcribing markers. We have a very large collection of southern Alberta cemetery transcriptions in our Community Heritage and Family History collection here at Calgary Public Library. (If you’re curious, you can find them in the catalogue by typing “cemetery” in the search box and choosing “subject” from the drop-down menu). These are invaluable resources for people seeking their ancestors. But many of the transcriptions also include burial records so that those buried without markers or whose markers have disappeared can also be listed.
There are also, believe it or not, walking tour guides to cemeteries. To some this may sound ghoulish, but in reality, it is an excellent way to get to know the people and history of a place. By touring the graves, with a human guide or a guide book, you get a very personal view of who and what made a city or town what it is. A great one for Calgary is Calgary’s historic Union Cemetery: a walking guide by the inimitable Harry Sanders. Using the graves of Calgarians, both rich and poor, as a starting point, Harry examines every aspect of Calgary’s history.
Calgary's Historic Union Cementery by Harry M. Sanders
So, this new way of burying may have unintended effects, but it is an intriguing proposition. It may affect the way we do genealogy, but then, even stone grave markers don’t last forever. The plot where my earliest ancestors in Canada were laid to rest is a parking lot now. If your people were buried in a potter’s field, they were in an unmarked grave and all that exists is a record of burial. The same would be true if your ancestors were cremated and not placed in a columbarium. I think choice in these matters is a good thing. We are a diverse city and burial customs are very personal and tied to the culture and history of our families. The city’s proposition seems to allow for choice, and, personally, I think I might like to be the granny they had to find with a GPS.