Today Halifax’s Old Burying Ground is a “park and outdoor museum,” as its National Historic Site of Canada plaque tells us. While Leititia F. Simson is actually versifying about the Old Loyalist Burying Ground in her hometown of Saint John, New Brunswick, she reminds us of the sad origins of any park that was once a graveyard. This poem is emotionally poignant, not only because it describes a graveyard, a scene of death, but also the neglect of the dead. This lack of love points to Maritime cities’ rough early years. The relatives and friends who would normally tend the graves might also be lying in the burying ground, possibly carried off by the same epidemic. Or, given Halifax and Saint John’s status as port cities, those lying in the ground here may have been temporary visitors with their loved ones far away in another corner of the British empire. When Simson was writing in 1869, the thousands of people interred in Halifax’s Old Burying Ground (closed 1844) and Saint John’s Old Loyalist Burying Ground (closed 1848) had died at least a generation ago. Perhaps they, not only their graves, have been sadly forgotten. Simson, like many other Victorians, bemoaned the neglect of graveyards. The Victorians began to reverse this lack of care through improvements, including more careful burial practices and tree planting (and other greening of the landscape) (Mount Allison University historian Hannah M. Lane has described this transformation in detail).
Simson’s poetic persona attempts to correct this indifference and forgetting: her spirit weeps, invites others to shed tears, and remembers through poetry the final resting place of so many. Simson would likely be heartened to know that since the 1980s, the Old Burying Ground Foundation has carried on her literary work practically, ensuring through landscaping, maintenance, and interpretative signage that the site is neglected no more.
Here Simson clearly highlights the darker side of local history—the reality of death, grief, mourning, and remembrance. In her poetry, she was committed to exploring the local but not always its dark side, as her poem, “Song to the Skaters of the St. John Skating Rink,” shows. As with so many of the writers profiled in these literary landmarks, we are witnessing the development of a local—specifically Canadian Maritime—literature. In other words, a literature rooted in specific Maritime locations and experiences.
Lane, Hannah M. “‘The Garden of the Dead’: The Old Burial Ground, Cemetery Reform, and Cultural Memory.” The Creative City of Saint John. Edited by Gwendolyn Davies, Peter Larocque & Christl Verduyn. Halifax: Formac, pp. 84-90.
“Old Burying Ground National Historic Site of Canada.” Directory of Federal Heritage Designations, Parks Canada. pc.gc.ca
Simson, Letitia F. “The Lines Written while Walking in the Old Burying-Ground.” Flowers of the Year and Other Poems. Saint, NB: J & A McMillan, 1869. pp. 82-84. Canadiana. Canadiana.ca, 2019.
___. “Song to the Skaters of the St. John Skating Rink.” Flowers of the Year and Other Poems. Saint, NB: J & A McMillan, 1869. p. 12. Canadiana.ca, 2019.
“The Old Burying Ground.” The Old Burying Ground Foundation, 2014. oldburyingground.ca
“The Old (Loyalist) Burying Ground.” Tourism New Brunswick. 2019. tourismnewbrunswick.ca
Trask, Deborah. Life How Short, Eternity How Long: Gravestone Carving and Carvers in Nova Scotia. Halifax: Nova Scotia Museum, 1978.
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