Nineteenth century records stored in a McMaster University library may bring the Niagara Anglican diocese much closer to identify the remains of hundreds of people buried under Hamilton's Christ's Church Cathedral parking lot.

"The church has actually kept very, very detailed records of who was interred in the cemetery like that," said Myron Groover, a librarian of archives and rare books at McMaster. "And those records all still exist, and in fact, are preserved in multiple copies."

The bodies, Groover says, were buried from 1832 to 1853. And if the diocese gets its way, the remains be exhumed and identified — all in order to make way for a multi-million dollar condo project.

On Wednesday, the Very Rev. Peter Wall told city councillors the Niagara Anglican diocese would like to identify and remove the bodies, now buried in "asphalt hell," beneath the parking lot of the James Street North church.

Wall said 55 per cent of the bodies are of people younger than 20 who likely died from illness and disease, part of a large burial ground of 762 graves. As many as 400 still remain.

When the parking lot is dug up and the bodies removed, the diocese plans to build a condo, retail and commercial 

'The church has actually kept very, very detailed records of who was interred' - Myron Groover, McMaster libarian 

development around the church, one of the oldest cathedrals in Canada. The lot is behind the church and borders Hughson Street North.

Locating and identifying graves

Groover says the records tell us the names of the people who were buried there but not where, exactly, the remains of each person can be found. Over the years, graves have been paved over and the original grave markers would have eroded over time.

"You're left within an area," he says, "where you know who's buried, but not where. So, that's going to be the challenge."

Groover explains that from a 21st century standpoint, it makes sense to record the location of the bodies, but that wasn't the thought process when these bodies were buried from in the 19th century. 

"For them, it's data entry," said Groover. "For purposes of what these records would be needed for, the place of burial wasn't actually important."

The records tell us something about Canada's history, Groover says. 

"When we want to look at demographic records, from early Canadian history, you don't have a bureau of the census, you don't have federal record keeping, you don't have provincial record keeping," said Groover. "It's the churches who are doing the business of tabulating the demography of the country, so that's where you have to go."

Parking lot

This parking lot behind Christ's Church used to be a cemetery, but it closed in 1853. Most of the remains are still underneath. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Groover says the facilities and staff at McMaster are probably why the diocese has chosen them to hold their records.

McMaster, he says, has a controlled reading room and storage space that can safeguard the material longevity and or the artifacts. 

Excavation process

McMaster anthropology professor Aubrey Cannon says the excavation process — when the bodies are dug up — will begin when all parties involved have agreed that it's acceptable to do so. 

The process is set out in the Ontario Cemeteries Act. 

Cannon says it's fairly straightforward as an excavation project.

"It's a matter of simply knowing what you're seeing and taking the care to do it carefully and systematically in order that everything should be covered as supposed to be," said Cannon.