Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Cemetery's Tale: Silence Can Speak Volumes

I remember my first trip to a cemetery; I went with my Grandma and cousin to Pleasant Valley Cemetery in Vernon, BC to tend my Grandma's parents' graves. I was maybe 9 or 10, and didn't know what to think. I had never met my great grandparents in life, as both had passed before I was even born. I remember there being two older boys (about 13-14) that were running, jumping, screaming and just being disrespectful while we were there. I didn't like that much. I was better behaved and didn't have to be told how to act, and I thought they were the rudest people around. We only went the once, and I've only been back - maybe twice - since then.

My second trip to a cemetery was a few years later. This time I was accompanied by my grade 12 English Lit class on a field trip. I can't remember who we were studying at the time, but my teacher, Mr Krahn, thought the trip to Coldstream Cemetery on a blustery October/Novemberish day seemed appropriate... And it was. For respectful reasons, the class' trip was cut very short, within 20 minutes of arrival, we were packing up and leaving. (My memory fails me, I can't remember if a funeral procession had entered the cemetery or if a couple that came to lay flowers on an old grave. Either way, out of respect, we left without so much as a hesitation.) I was disappointed because we hadn't stayed long... I understood why it was the right thing to do. 

Early into the New Year, my third trip was made to a cemetery. This time it was for my first (and still my only) funeral. A guy who was a few grades a head of me in school had passed away. He was only 20 or so, and he also happened to be 4 of my cousins' cousin. (We were as close to being family, without actually being family, as you can get. He was their cousin on their Dad's side, and I was their cousin on their Mum's side.) The sad thing was, his younger brother was in my grade... And we were graduating from high school that Spring. The brother my age pulled through though, and wound up being MC at our grad... Older brother would've been proud, he had the personality of a performer as well.

It's been years since I've had to attend a funeral, or took a class requiring a field trip to a cemetery, or since I've been able to visit my Great-Grandparents' graves... It hasn't been years since I've wandered through a grave yard though. I guarantee I'm not morbid, or have any bizarre motives. It was out of curiosity more than anything.

While Edmonton has no shortage of cemeteries, I am most familiar with what I now realize are two separate grave yards. I came across these places quite by accident, yet in my usual way... They were on the route to work, years ago, when I first moved to Edmonton. At first I thought the cemetery was separated by the busy avenue, but still one place. It wasn't until I looked it up a few years later that I realized that there was literally a cemetery across the street from a cemetery.  On the south side of the Avenue sits St Joachim Cemetery, which happens to be Catholic Holy ground. (It was established in 1888 and is located at 105 Avenue at 117 Street.) On the North side of the Avenue lays the Municipal Cemetery to the City of Edmonton. (Information via the Internet is pretty sparse.)

St Joachim
Shortly after the discovery, I went for a wander through the grounds on a day off. I soon made new friends and had other places to be and the thought of a grave side walk evaporated. It wasn't until I started working, literally blocks from the cemeteries, that my visits increased. (I know it sounds creepy....) In the short few months that I worked near by, it almost came routine to take a stroll through the yards before my shift. Though so close to a busy thoroughfare, the cemeteries seemed so peaceful and serene amongst the trees. The odd time, I happened across a squirrel or two that would be playing amongst the head stones.

St Joachim Cemetery
Those interned in either place, told a history. Some head stones were extravagant, while others were plain. Some had the exact age on their stones, right down to the month. Some were nearly 100 years old when they passed. Some of the older stones told the story of the person that lay beneath it; where they were born, who their parents or children were. Some were so worn and weathered that it was hard to read much at all. Others had moss growing over them, while others were broken and crumbling. The ones that made me the saddest were the graves of children. Some were just a day old when they passed, some weren't named at all and were plainly marked "Baby" and distinguished by their last name. (IE/ Baby Smith) It made me wonder why there were so many tiny tombstones, then it dawned on me. Many died due to illness and disease that today's medical advances would have surely saved a great number of them.

If I would've been born 100 years ago, I would've most likely seen death as an infant. I was born with Pyloric Stenosis, which means that back then, I would most likely have starved to death. I'm not sure there wouldn't have been a way to figure out what was wrong with me, let alone fix it. My Grandma, who is almost 80, was born almost two months prematurely. The Doctors told my Great Grandfather not to bother naming or registering her, as she probably wouldn't make it long. Obviously she did, as she's my Grandma today. If she hadn't, she would have been Baby Gysler left in Switzerland when the family immigrated to Canada. (This is the same Grandma that took me on my first trip to the cemetery.)

It's not always about me; It was a great way to see some of the history of Edmonton first hand, even if it is a creepier way of going about it.

Municipal Cemetery

Municipal Cemetery

No comments: