AROUND THE KITCHEN TABLE
Cemeteries are historic sites, not just resting places
The speakers at the celebration marking the revitalization of Kristnes, a little Icelandic cemetery on the side of a gravelled grid road north east of Foam Lake, shared a recurring theme. Treasuring our heritage and our ancestors means maintaining our ancestors’ cemeteries. The speakers also talked about cemeteries across Saskatchewan that are seriously neglected.
“Cemeteries are not only a final resting place for our loves ones; they are also historic sites which serve as a reminder that our ancestors endured many hardships to create a better life for their families,” said Stella Stephanson, who was asked to lay a wreath in honour of the most recent person buried in the cemetery.
“All of these country cemeteries are having a tough time being cared for. Today we are hoping to revitalize our country cemeteries, and hope other communities may find the necessary resources to revitalize theirs,” said Lavonne Kristjanson, MC, whose family tends the Kristnes cemetery. “We all know local cemeteries that are carefully tended, an honour to those who are buried there, and an inspiration to everyone. We also know other cemeteries that look like they suffer from a serious case of ‘We just don’t care and somebody else can do it.’ ”
And then Allisen King of Edmonton, who grew up in the area and provided the money for the revitalization, launched unabashedly into what she called her commercial: “In Saskatchewan there are a number of abandoned and neglected cemeteries, not necessarily by choice but circumstance, for example, when there is not much community left. We here have demonstrated what can be done without government assistance. Having said that, there is little doubt there remains a much needed role for the government.”
And that’s beginning to happen. Since 1969, the Genealogical Society of Saskatchewan has had a project to locate every cemetery and burial location in the province, to record the information on the headstones, and to set up a data base online. Because of their work, the SGS has been asked by the provincial government to partner in a pilot project designed to help restore some of the abandoned sites. Starting with 20 abandoned and derelict cemeteries, the government will fund improvements on a 50-50 basis. Results are just coming in but the program looks promising.
Still, grassroots work, too. Two or three people with vision and determination
can make a huge difference on their own, the speaker from the GSS said,
as she offered one of her favourite examples. A small group contacted
the past and present parishioners who had links to one rundown cemetery.
That call for funds from two or three passionate people raised $150,000.
They revitalized the whole cemetery. They brought an angel over from
Italy. And, with all the work done, they had thousands of dollars left
for an ongoing maintenance fund.
TELLING STORIES — Small prairie cemeteries are — and should be — a constant reminder that our ancestors endured many hardships to create a better life for their families, writes Joan Eyolfson Cadham. “Their stories are our stories, too.” (Janice Weber photo)
Rev. Marie Hearrenschmidt, a retired Lutheran minister with Icelandic connections, believes strongly in maintaining the stories. “At funerals,” Rev. Marie said, “I loved to hear the story of the person at the luncheon, when people reminisced. The stories were wonderful.”
“God was calling those courageous Icelanders to leave their country. It was hard. I can attest to that — I was crying all the way to Winnipeg when I immigrated from Alsace in 1969. I wondered whether I’d make it. I did.” She reminded the people gathered at the cemetery that, “We need to tell the stories so we know where we came from. Sometimes a headstone inscription is the only photograph you have of an individual. To build the future we must know our roots.”
She believes in visiting cemeteries. In France, she said, we observe All Souls Day by visiting our family cemeteries on Nov. 1. Weather is not going to make that a practical Saskatchewan tradition. But, she suggested, “Choose a day and gather here. Have a picnic. Come out with a book and your lunch. There’s a new bench. Just sit here for a while.”
And as for necessary revitalization? Kristnes has a new fence, a new gate, a map of all the gravesites, and a bench. Future plans include plaques marking all graves where the headstone inscriptions have worn away. It all costs considerable money.
However, even mowing, clipping grass from around headstones, removing brush and straightening headstones would be a start. There’s no better reason than the one the speakers at Kristnes raised. These little cemeteries are — and should be — a constant reminder that our ancestors endured many hardships to create a better life for their families. Their stories are our stories, too.
Eyolfson Cadham is an award-winning columnist and freelance journalist who moved from Montreal to Foam Lake in 1992. She is a member of Sask. Writers Guild and is an oral storyteller who has professional status with Storytellers of Canada.