Where best to meet the ghosts of Halifax’s past than in its oldest (British) graveyard? The Old Burying Ground (also known as St. Paul’s graveyard) begins its story in 1749, the same year Halifax was established as a British town. An astounding 12,000 people from many walks of life and various religious denominations found their final resting place here, before this graveyard was closed to burials in 1844.
As well as the Old Burying Ground, this tour takes in another site, just across the street: the former location of the poor house cemetery, later Grafton Street Park. If you’ve never heard of this park, that’s because it’s long gone. The Spring Garden Memorial Library (aka the old public library) has been on this spot since 1951; now that Halifax has a new Central Library, the old library location is in for another, yet to be determined, change, complicated considerably by the many bodies buried in this area.
Today, residents and tourists stroll through the Old Burying Ground, as in any urban green space, while also discovering aspects of the city’s history—after all, this is where many who shaped Halifax’s early days are buried and commemorated. The Old Burying Ground’s historic credentials are clear: it’s now a municipal, provincial, and national historic site. This cemetery is a museum about itself, thanks to the Old Burying Ground Foundation’s tombstone restoration and installation of interpretive panels. These panels tell visitors of the site’s past—its early days as a graveyard, its current status as a park and museum, and its links to major historical events like the War of 1812 and the Crimean War.
If you walk in this cemetery/park/museum, you’ll actually be following in Anne of Green Gables’ footsteps. While L.M. Montgomery’s famous red-haired heroine is most closely associated with Prince Edward Island, she does go away to college in a fictional Halifax. During her college years, the Old Burying Ground is a green retreat, a place for her to briefly escape from an unfamiliar, busy town.
The “ghosts” of Halifax’s past hover closely here. After all, the names of (some of) the dead and their stories are accessible on tombstones and interpretative panels. This space, for example, is a springboard for the imaginative Anne of Green Gables to evoke the ghosts of the War of 1812, especially the tragic American Captain James Lawrence. This is no stale, musty museum for Anne but one that deeply connects her with the past. For local writer Michael Williams, forced out of school into a warehouse at a young age, the Grafton Street Park, a former graveyard, is a refuge, offering literary inspiration, and an important site in his development as a writer.
But, of course, these graveyards were not always parks, museums, and inspiring places. They were originally the scene of death and anguish, grief and mourning. In the 1860s, Saint John, New Brunswick poet, Letitia F. Simson, is distressed that early settler graveyards are neglected, that the dead of towns like Halifax are forgotten. In the Old Burying Ground, this neglect was not reversed until the 1980s when the Old Burying Ground Foundation began its care of this place, repairing and maintaining it.
The accounts of Halifax’s burying grounds in this tour track changes in Victorian attitudes to graveyards and public green spaces. Simson’s poem bemoans the dilapidated condition of a burying ground, reflecting the widespread “neglect of graveyards in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century,” as Mount Allison University historian Hannah M. Lane writes (p. 84). Graveyards were “unhealthy and quite disgusting places to visit,” according to Nova Scotia Museum Curator Emerita Deborah Trask (p. 36). As the nineteenth century wore on, new cemeteries were built and old ones improved to have a greater focus on nature, open space, health, well-being, recreation, retreat, consolation, contemplation, beauty, history, and tourism, as Lane tells us and as we see in L.M. Montgomery’s descriptions (p. 87-90). In other words, these spaces became more like the graveyards or public parks we know today.
Halifax’s burying grounds are spaces that, in Montgomery’s words, make history feel “so near” and “so real.” The city’s past is the source of imagination, inspiration, and creativity. In this tour, Halifax, and its former graveyards, are important in personal stories, as well as connected to Maritime, Canadian, North American, and world history.
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.
“The Old Burying Ground.” The Old Burying Ground Foundation, 2014. oldburyingground.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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