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A Better Place: Death and Burial in Nineteenth-Century Ontario

A Better Place: Death and Burial in Nineteenth-Century Ontario

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A Better Place: Death and Burial in Nineteenth-Century Ontario

239 pages
2 heures
Apr 11, 2011


A Better Place describes the practices around death and burial in 19th-century Ontario. Funeral rituals, strong religious beliefs, and a firm conviction that death was a beginning not an end helped the bereaved through their times of loss in a century where death was always close at hand.

The book describes the pioneer funeral in detail as well as the factors that changed this simple funeral into the elaborate etiquette-driven Victorian funeral at the end of the century. It includes the sources of various funeral customs, including the origins of embalming that gave rise to the modern-day funeral parlour. The evolution of cemeteries is explained with the beginnings of cemeteries in specific towns given as examples.

An understanding of these changing burial rites, many of which might seem strange to us today, is invaluable for the family historian. In addition, the book includes practical suggestions for finding death and burial records throughout the century.

Apr 11, 2011

À propos de l'auteur

Susan Smart worked for many years as a project manager in the information technology field. She is an active volunteer with the Ontario Genealogical Society, was project coordinator and editor of Index to the Upper Canada Land Books, and is the co-author of Using Forms for Canadian Genealogical Research. Susan lives in Markham, Ontario.

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Aperçu du livre

A Better Place - Susan Smart

A Better Place

Susan Smart

A Better Place

Death and Burial in

Nineteenth-Century Ontario

Copyright © Susan Smart, 2011

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise (except for brief passages for purposes of review) without the prior permission of Dundurn Press. Permission to photocopy should be requested from Access Copyright.

Editor: Ruth Chernia

Copy Editor: Cheryl Hawley

Design: Jesse Hooper

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Smart, Susan

A better place : death and burial in nineteenth-century Ontario / Susan Smart.

Includes bibliographical references.

Issued also in an electronic format.

ISBN 978-1-55488-899-3

1. Funeral rites and ceremonies--Ontario--History. 2. Burial--Ontario--History. 3. Cemeteries--Ontario--History. 4. Death--Social aspects--Ontario--History--19th century. I. Title.

GT3213.A3O67 2011 393’.109713 C2011-900934-X

We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for our publishing program. We also acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund and Livres Canada Books, and the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Book Publishers Tax Credit program, and the Ontario Media Development Corporation.

Care has been taken to trace the ownership of copyright material used in this book. The author and the publisher welcome any information enabling them to rectify any references or credits in subsequent editions.

J. Kirk Howard, President

Printed and bound in Canada.


Ontario Genealogical Society

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Bushman and his companion made all possible haste to the place of the accident.

When they came there a most harrowing sight presented itself to them. There sat Harry, with his chin resting on his knees, completely broken down with his sorrow. Beside him, on the ground, lay his wife, in a paroxysm of grief. Her pitiful moaning was enough to touch the most insensible, and to melt the coldest heart.

Her only cry was, Me babes, me babes. Och, me poor innocent babes.

When John, who could scarcely command himself to speak, asked Harry what had happened, he could only point to the stump and, between his sobs, say, The little dears are under there.

William, or Billy as he was usually called, was the only one that could give any information on the matter. With the help of what he said, John soon understood the facts of the case, which were as follows:

An elm tree, some two feet across, had been turned up by the roots in a recent gale. As is frequently the case with that kind of timber, a large amount of earth clung to the roots, thus making a big hollow under the overhanging roots, some of which still held on to the ground, and formed a sort of canopy or covering. Under this the children were playing, it seems, while their father and his man were chopping up the fallen tree.

Harry was cutting the tree off some three feet from the ground. For want of experience in the matter, he did not understand the danger that his children were in. When he severed the connection between the stump and the tree, the weight of earth, and the spring of the unbroken and elastic roots, caused the stump to rise to an upright position, and fill up the hole, burying the poor children under a couple of tons of earth and wood. One pitiful scream was all that was heard of them, then everything was still.

The alarm was given to all the neighbors, and men turned out to help in getting the bodies of the children out of the place. But it was only after the roots had been cut away and two yoke of oxen hitched to it that the stump could be removed. Then the earth was carefully lifted until the crushed and broken remains of the poor children were found lying close together, with their playthings still clenched in their hands. Strong arms and ready hands tenderly removed the mangled little forms, and laid them on a pile of leaves, hastily scraped together for a couch. Around those lifeless children strong men were standing. But every face was wet with tears. Brave hearts were there, but not one heart so hard as to be unmoved by the sad and touching scene that was there witnessed.

Poor Bridget had been led to the house by the sympathizing women. But at times her cries could be heard. Harry still sat upon the ground crushed by the weight of sorrow that had fallen upon his household. When the children were laid on the impromptu bed provided for them, he got up and stood over them, with the great tear drops falling from his manly face upon the pale upturned faces of his two dead babies. At last he broke the silence, saying:

Oh me babes, me babes, me poor dear babes! Was it for this that I brought yez away from the green fields of dear Ould Ireland? Was it for this that meself and your poor mother have wrought so hard, and lived so cheap to try and get a house for yez?

With slow and solemn steps the little morsels of mangled mortality were carried to the house from which they had so lately come full of life and childish glee.

Two days after the accident the first funeral procession that was ever seen in the Riverbend settlement moved silently from the house of Harry and Bridget Hawthorn to a grave on the banks of Catfish River, near where it crossed over the boundary of Harry’s land and went on to John Bushman’s.

A sudden and unexpected death, in any community, brings into view some of the grandest elements of our human brotherhood, as nothing else can do it. Though neither priest nor parson could be had, yet these children were not buried without religious service. Protestant and Catholic forgot their differences as they stood around this open grave and joined in the service, while Mr. Woodbine read from John Bushman’s Book of Discipline the ritual of the funeral service as it was used by the Methodist Church of that day. The death of the Hawthorn children was an event long remembered in the settlement.

— from Among the Forest Trees, or, How the Bushman Family Got Their Homes: Being a Book of Facts and Incidents of Pioneer Life in Upper Canada, Arranged in the Form of a Story. By the Reverend Joseph H. Hilts (Toronto: William Briggs, 1888), 283–86. Available on Internet Archive, www.archive.org.


Death and Burial


DEATH IS A FASCINATING SUBJECT. We will all face it one day and we wonder how it will be for us — not only how the physical death will happen but also how our deaths will be handled by others.

Burial rituals are important to help those left behind cope with the loss of a loved one and to enable them to carry on and lead a normal life again. My own mother’s funeral rites were very different from the rites surrounding her mother’s burial thirty years earlier. How different then would burial rites have been a hundred and fifty years ago? Thoughts such as these led to the writing of this book.

In the nineteenth century, most Christians held the view that dying at home surrounded by loved ones constituted an ideal death. Pat Jalland gives a fuller description of this attitude in her book Death in the Victorian Family when she describes the model of a Good Death:

Death ideally should take place at home, with the dying person making explicit farewells to each family member. There should be time … for the completion of temporal and spiritual business, whether the latter signified final Communion or informal family devotions. The dying person should be conscious and lucid until the end, resigned to God’s will, able to beg forgiveness for past sins and to prove his or her worthiness for salvation. Pain and suffering should be borne with fortitude, and even welcomed as a final test of fitness for heaven.1

Most Protestants and Catholics also believed that death was not an ending. Rather, death was the beginning of a new and better life where they would join loved ones who had predeceased them.

This book focuses not on death itself, nor on the spiritual aspects of dying. It focuses instead on the physical aftermath of death in a specific time period — from the establishment of Upper Canada to the beginnings of the funeral industry in the early twentieth century.

Part I, Death and Burial, discusses the various parts of a funeral based on a description of a pioneer funeral written in the words of a Methodist minister. The origins of the various funeral customs are given as well as details of how these customs changed and evolved as the century progressed. In the latter part of the century, embalming became fashionable and combined with changing social patterns, this development led to the establishment of the funeral industry.

The beginnings of cemeteries are then described — from a scenic spot on a pioneer farm to burial grounds in churchyards to the municipal owned non-denominational cemetery. Examples of this development are given based on the four towns of Toronto, Kingston, Peterborough, and Niagara.

The chapter on religion discusses how the burial rites of the Methodist funeral differed according to different religions of that era, with a focus on the rites of the nineteenth century as opposed to modern practices. Lastly, there is a discussion about the origins of the more familiar funeral customs which are still in use today.

Part II, Genealogical Implications, discusses where to look for nineteenth-century death and burial records. Official death registrations did not start until 1869 and prior to that date, the genealogist must rely on other sources. Tips and hints on where to search for records pre- and post-1869 are given, including estate files, religious records, coroner’s reports, newspapers, and cemetery records, among others.

It is hoped that this book will give genealogists, historians, and others some insight into burial practices prior to the advent of funeral homes, and help them to discover the records that document the conclusion of their ancestors’ lives.

Chapter 1

Death and Attitudes

There are loved ones in the glory

Whose dear forms you often miss,

When you close your earthly story

Will you join them in their bliss?

Will the circle be unbroken

By and by, by and by?

Is a better home awaiting

In the sky, in the sky?[1]

DEATH, IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY UPPER CANADA, seemed to be always close at hand. High mortality rates, the hardships of pioneer life, and the lack of medication to fight infectious diseases all played a role in keeping death a part of most people’s everyday lives.

At the end of Volume Two of Twenty-Seven Years in Canada West, Samuel Strickland writes, Thus, in the space of one little year, I had lost my little son, my son-in-law, my grand-daughter, my beloved wife, and my youngest daughter. It seemed, indeed, that death had bent his bow against my family, and would not spare till he had pierced our hearts again and again within this brief but fatal period.[2] Strickland’s son-in-law had died of cholera and his wife in childbirth. Two of the three children were infants and the other a toddler. These deaths occurred in 1850. In July 1851, he and his daughter left Canada West and returned to his family in England.

One study of infant mortality in Toronto states that for the years 1850 to 1854, 37 percent of all male deaths and 30 percent of all female deaths were infants under one year.[3] This high death rate for infants was not unique to Toronto. A study of infant mortality rates in Belleville produces the same kind of statistic. In 1878, for example, 35 percent of deaths were children under the age of two. A large percentage of these children died from either diphtheria or inflammations.[4]

Barkin and Gentles conducted a scholarly review of the 24,124 deaths recorded in the burial registers of the Potter’s Field cemetery and the Necropolis cemetery (both located in Toronto) from 1850 to 1899. They found that over 40 percent of the burials were infants under the age of one year. Based on the statistics gathered in their study, they concluded that life expectancy in Toronto in 1851 was 40.03 years for males, and 42.14 years for females. The leading cause of death for adults was tuberculosis, followed closely by typhoid, a water-borne disease. At that time in Toronto, the sewers drained into the same bay from which drinking water was taken.[5]

Today, immunizations, antibiotics, and generally more sanitary living conditions have almost eliminated these particular causes of death, but some causes of death in pioneer times were somewhat unique to the nineteenth century. Felled by a tree was not uncommon, nor were house fires. The study of Belleville deaths shows a large number of accidental deaths, mostly through drowning, and more than a few instances of drunkingness.[6] In the early 1830s and again twenty years later, cholera epidemics swept through Upper Canada, sometimes wiping out whole families at a time.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century

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