Early Ontario Gravestones by Carole Hanks. McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd, 1974.
I picked up this slim volume from a remainder table in a Toronto bookstore when I was working downtown, back before my kids were born; which is to say, a long time ago. I’m not sure why the topic appealed to me, but I dug the book back out when we moved to the St. Lawrence area. This part of the country saw some of the earliest British and European pioneer settlements in Upper Canada and many local cemeteries feature markers from those long-ago pioneers.
The earliest markers in Ontario date to the 1790s. Prior to that date, wooden markers were used and settlements were sparse. The oldest gravestones I have come across are in the Blue Church cemetery near Prescott. The inscription is nearly illegible but you can read the year, 1798.
The last decade of the 18th century saw the beginning of a style of gravestone that would be dominant throughout the 19th century, a marble, rectangular slab. The soft surface of the marble used has resulted in considerable damage to these stones through erosion caused by weather and pollution. Inscriptions can be difficult to make out. Some markers have been damaged falling over while still others have sunk into the ground far enough to obscure part of their message. About 1820 to 1830, marble markers increased in abundance and show the workmanship of professional craftsmen. Unlike markers of the 20th century, that generally lack individuality, 19th-century markers can be quite imaginative, with a variety of motifs, shapes and epitaphs. Following here are examples of popular motifs. Except as noted, the markers are in the Iroquois or Prescott cemeteries.
One of the most popular motifs was the willow tree. Margaret Johnson’s marker provides a graceful example.
The willow tree motif is here incorporated into a graceful curving top. The inscription reads Nancy, wife of Jacob Brouse, 1834.
The marker of Annah Hurd, died 1822, gracefully combines a willow motif with a classical urn. This well-preserved gravestone is in the Blue Church graveyard.
The grasping hands motif was also popular. Often a heading over the engraved hands reads “Farewell”. This example is the marker of Christopher Carruthers, died 1879.
The heading on the gravestone of Henry Edward Palmer, died 1847, reads “Gone to Heaven”. Other markers featuring the pointing hand motif are headed “Gone Home”.
Flowers, especially roses and lilies, symbols of purity, are common motifs. The marker of Robert Henry, died 1847, has a very attractive version of flowers in a vase.
The markers of Henry and Samuel Brown display two other popular motifs, the Holy Bible and a dove.
In a land of immigrants, some markers pay tribute to the country of origin of the deceased. The twin markers of James and Mary Hollehan record their birthplace as Kilkenny, Ireland. A few markers recall the occupation of the deceased. Some gravestones are engraved with the sign of the Masons. The last marker included here is that of Captain William Moore, accented with a nautical motif.
Postscript: See also followup post on epitaphs.