Gravestones buried in the Negro Burial Ground, a cemetery that dates back almost 200 years, is not a unique situation, in this town or others across Ontario, and indeed the country.
When James Russell came to town last spring, having arranged for an expert in ground-penetrating radar to meet him at the Mississagua Street cemetery, he hoped to learn how many people, mostly early Black setters, were buried in the cemetery. What the Toronto filmmaker discovered was that in addition to three stones still standing in the cemetery, there are 18 such monuments buried beneath the ground, and with that knowledge, he embarked on a journey to unearth them.
He was assuming that, over time, the stones fell over and sunk in the ground, and they may have — they are not buried far below the surface.
However he now believes town staff charged with maintaining cemeteries have for decades dealt with fallen and broken stones by what he describes as burying them.
Russell says he is “incensed” to learn that graves have been handled with what he considers a lack of respect, and is especially angry that no records were kept of names on stones or mapping of those that had fallen over.
Last week, Russell told The Local, he filed a formal complaint with the Bereavement Authority of Ontario (BAO), the agency that enforces provincial burial regulations, that says Niagara-on-the-Lake employees buried headstones in the Negro Burial Ground, in violation of the Funeral, Burial and Cremation Services Act, and the Canadian Criminal Code.
Russell was told that since the 1980s to recent years, town staff took steps to preserve the stones by laying them in a shallow pit, the face of the stone level with the ground, and over time dirt and grass would cover it. This action was taken due to a lack of funding to maintain the site and the stones, he was told.
If town staff wanted to preserve the leaning or damaged gravestones in the Negro Burial Ground, Russell said, they would have restored them, or at the very least, created a map of where they had buried them.
Instead, he says, they rendered the Canadians buried in the Negro Burial Ground nameless, “thereby committing a moral and legal indignity.”
His hope is “that the BAO will compel the town of NOTL to unearth, restore and remount the headstones their employees buried not so long ago.”
Although town staff refute that the stones were buried, Russell says “there’s no way that dirt and grass grows completely over headstones after being laid down 40ish years ago. They would have had to dig a trench and cover the headstones.”
There are instances of headstones sinking below the surface, he says, “but they are heavy marble headstones from more than a hundred years ago.”
One of the definitions of ‘bury,’ he adds, is to “consign to obscurity,” and town staff actions “clearly resulted in the headstones being consigned to obscurity.”
The Negro Burial Ground, like other cemeteries in town, became the property of the municipality when churches were closed and there was no one else to look after them, says Hans Pauls, who retired in May as facilities supervisor after 36 years as a town employee.
While he is best known for his decades of working in the arena, doing everything from sharpening skates and driving the Zamboni to overseeing the installation of the ice each fall, in the early days of his career, in the 1980s and 90s, he spent some time working on cemetery maintenance.
He describes how crews finding broken headstones lying down, after being shifted upwards by frost and cold each winter, would cut around them, and dig just deep enough to lay the stone down so the face of it was flush with the ground and could still be seen.
“It’s what happens when headstones made of soft limestone fall over. Over 20, 25, or 30 years, the grass starts to grow over them, and they become covered,” he says. “We were doing the best we could.”
There was never a policy or direction from the town, Pauls adds. “There was never a real procedure. It was just the way things were done,” including at the town’s still-active Lakeshore Cemetery.
He strongly disagrees that the stones were buried. “They were never, ever buried. Why would you do that?”
Staff were always trying to be respectful, he adds, and asks, “Who was going to fix them? There were no funds to do that. I’m not saying it’s right, but that’s the way it is.”
They made sure they laid the stones where they fell, but they didn’t keep records. “Sometimes the stones were so weathered you couldn’t read the inscriptions,” he says.
“At Lakeshore Cemetery now there is a map of every grave,” he adds,” but as for the others, if anybody kept records it would be the churches, and who knows where they are now. This is a situation where the town has to take them over when the church is gone, and did that without any historical records, just to maintain them.”
It’s not just the Negro Burial Ground where that happened, Pauls says, it was every cemetery in town, including Homer, by the bridge, the one in Virgil beside the school, and every other inactive one the town maintains.
He knows of a couple of stones in the Homer Cemetery that family members have had restored, but that doesn’t happen often, and in many cases there is no family left to take that responsibility, he says.
And there are some inactive cemeteries in town that nobody has touched in years, not even to cut the grass, he says.
“I’m the last person standing, in a sense, that knows what has happened in the day, and still happens today,” Pauls says, “and is probably what is happening in cemeteries across the province and across Canada.”
Russell is hoping to move quickly on the work he has planned in the Negro Burial Ground, but there is a cost involved. It begins with $9,000 for the research stage by a well-known archeological firm with expertise in cemeteries, and about another $50,000 for the dig to unearth them, and a plan to conserve them.
Any work to be done at the town-owned cemetery has to be approved by the BAO and by council, and Russell believes the cost is the responsibility of the town.
George Webber, a member of the fundraising committee formed to raise money to unearth gravestones, says committee members see it a little differently — they will be seeking private donations, while working collaboratively with the town to determine its responsibility.
While the original impetus to form the committee was to help finance the project undertaken by Russell, he has distanced himself from the fundraising, as it’s become clear that this is a longer-term project than originally anticipated, for work that needs to be done in other cemeteries as well, and includes the town’s involvement as owner of those cemeteries.
“We don’t want to go to the town operations for tax dollars,” Webber says. “There are a lot of priorities for the town. We’d like to raise money privately.”
Working with the town, the committee’s first objective is “to create a vision” of the project, so members, when seeking donations, can present a clear plan of what the money will be funding.
As well, the town also has a plan to help finance the work that needs to be done in its inactive cemeteries. In addition to working with the fundraising committee, says CAO Marnie Cluckie, NOTL is looking for a commitment for funding from the province.
Cluckie says she has spoken recently to David Voogt, the town’s cemetery manager, and confirmed that over decades of broken and fallen gravestones, stones were laid down, although “staff complete regular grounds maintenance at the cemetery to ensure that the face of the headstones can continue to be seen. This includes grass trimming and removal of brush, leaves and other materials,” says Cluckie.
“Compounding the problem is the insufficient funding to deal with cemeteries,” when the responsibility of caring for them was downloaded from the province to municipalities, but with no funding to do that job.
“Given the sacred nature of burial grounds, the town always wishes to take every measure to maintain and protect them,” continues Cluckie. “In addition, this cemetery (the Negro Burial Ground) has historical and cultural significance, and it is important to ensure ongoing protection and preservation.”
The town had already begun working with Russell and the fundraising committee when it asked the province, during the August conference of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO), to develop a program “that accurately funds costs associated with taking over and maintaining a cemetery, and changing legislation to provide relief to municipalities that cannot bear the costs downloaded to overburdened taxpayers,” Cluckie told The Local.
Many municipalities have identified challenges they collectively face with maintaining abandoned cemeteries under the Funeral, Burial and Cremation Services Act,” she says. “Rural municipalities, in particular, are faced with increased financial burdens and limited resources.”
Cluckie says NOTL was not the first, and won’t be the last, to make that delegation to AMO asking for funding for cemeteries — a delegation the town chose out of the three they were permitted to make this summer.
The presentation to AMO, which included NOTL, Lincoln and West Lincoln, asked the province to develop a program to fund the costs of taking over a cemetery, providing relief for rural municipalities that can’t afford to look after them.
The provincial representatives take the information away and consider it for the future, but a response isn’t expected any time soon, says Cluckie.