Entries in graveyards (4)
Evidently, iron railings around graves, one of which I found in a small Nicola Valley cemetery last summer, come from the era of 19th century body-snatchers and grave robbers in England. Freshly buried bodies were regularly dug up to sell to medical schools for dissection. Relatives would watch over the grave at night until the body had deteriorated to the point it was not worth digging up –two to three weeks.
This is all on the Jane Austen website, 19th century social practice arcana. So many traditions migrated to Canada leaving their particular histories behind: we are left with inexplicable material objects. In terms of fenced graves, it was the wealthy that could afford such a fiercely protective display. Where this occurred in the little Nicola Valley cemetery, there were two grand iron-fenced graves and then half a dozen less grand graves surrounded by wood picket fences.
The body-snatchers weren't in evidence here, but wealth was. Granite gravestones are shockingly expensive, if you've ever had to get one. They probably always were. Added to cast iron fencing, it was quite a display. I'm not sure that the dead are concerned with display, however the precision of a picket fence gives the dead some privacy and some propriety: a defence against obliteration.
The old Highway 5A runs from Merritt to Kamloops up the Nicola Valley. It is a beautiful road, and allows one to avoid the arid Coquihalla. On it is this graveyard, established in 1905 by St Michael's Anglican Church. Most of the old graves are fenced off, ranging from a plain picket fence to chain threaded through four corner granite posts, to a very elaborate wrought iron fence and gate. Some of the headstones, most from around 1910, are granite or marble, beautifully carved, elaborately inscribed
It is a dry landscape, dry grass, pines and sage; the fences are quite precise delineations of territory, even in death. Clearly the grass is mowed here at some point during the year, keeping down weeds and sage, so one finds even today, a century later, the fences often enclose a kind of indigenous garden. There are new graves in this little cemetery, closer to the river, so this isn't entirely an archival landscape. No fences for the new sites, but lots of flowers which sit in all their plastic gaiety like bedspreads.
In yesterday's post, the Paul Nash photograph 'Totems', a series of shaped boat parts still attached to the piece of tree from which they were carved, reminded me of a graveyard I saw in the mid-1990s off the road from Lytton to Lilloet, somewhere around North Bend. I've misplaced my slide notes so can't pin point it more closely. However, it was in a meadow on one of the glacial till benches high above the Fraser River. There is an old, unpaved road that runs up the west side of the canyon connecting fishing camps on the river side with small farms on the other side of the road; mostly First Nations people live here: a parallel and, to everyone whizzing up the Fraser Canyon on the Trans-Canada Highway, a very hidden life.
The headstones and crosses are all wood, and all carved out of tree trunks. This is ponderosa pine country, now much diminished by both the pine beetle and forest fires. It is very dry in the Fraser Canyon; some of these crosses were extremely old and checked, others recent.
My photos are not taken with a surrealist's eye, rather they document how things are made, and how many variations of something as straightforward as a headstone there can be when people make such things themselves. The relationship between the cross, the tree, the earth and the life is so clear and elemental here. The placing of the head cross at the head of the open grave – the tree section is as deep as the grave – the filling in of the grave, the cross growing out of the earth, there is a ritual aspect to all of this that has been lost in our present day civic cemeteries where headstones are flat slabs of marble, laser engraved off an Illustrator file and which arrive weeks after the ceremony.
I've never seen this way of doing crosses anywhere else although in other small graveyards in the canyon there are sometimes a couple of these carved timber crosses. In this particular graveyard, it was all carved crosses stone shapes.