London

Ontario has a grave problem — its tombstones are falling apart

Many Ontario cemeteries are in a serious state of disrepair, with leaning, loose and broken tombstones littering the sites. But only a few folks can tackle the problem.

Old, leaning, loose and broken tombstones litter cemeteries with no clear long-term fix

Brienna French and Robyn Lacy are spending their summer preserving tombstones and monuments at Woodland Cemetery in London. They clean and piece together tombstones that have fallen apart, and dig up old stones that have sunk into the earth. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

When Tom Klaasen walks into a graveyard, his eyes dart row to row, scoping out problems with the tombstones in front of him. 

There are dilapidated, unreadable monuments, sunken graves and headstones that have crumbled into many pieces. He'll push and shake the upright tombstones, sometimes heaving his entire body weight on them to see how loose they are.

The bodies buried underneath are an afterthought.

"It drives me absolutely crazy," he said. "There probably isn't a cemetery that I go to that, within 10 feet of where I'm standing, I can show [you] an unsafe monument."

Tom Klaasen will push tombstones and monuments throughout the graveyard to check how loose they are. When he fixes up a graveyard, he looks for extreme angles, tilting, leaning and sinking. 'Usually the worst are pretty easy to find.' (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Klaasen is head of Memorial Restoration in Sarnia, Ont., and has been restoring tombstones and monuments for about 11 years now.

There are few people in the province who specialize in this field, so Klaasen keeps busy, travelling to graveyards around Ontario to spruce them up. Many are in a serious state of disrepair, with leaning, loose and broken tombstones littering the sites. 

"A cemetery would never think of not cutting the grass," he said. "But they'll let the monuments rot and fall in the ground and nobody seems to think anything of it."

Many Ontario cemeteries are in a serious state of disrepair, with leaning, loose and broken tombstones littering the sites. Only a few folks can tackle the problem. Haydn Watters takes a trip to the graveyard to find out how and why it persists. 6:32

Tombstones 'lost to time'

The exact number of Ontario graves that have deteriorated is unknown — but it's a big problem, particularly with older graves, which can be made from very fragile rock. 

Joe Wilson, chair of the Ontario Genealogical Society's cemetery committee, said he hears from graveyards all over the province hoping to fix up their tombstones. 

"You can't even ballpark a number. That's the unfortunate part," he said. "It upsets me and the society as a whole that these stones are being lost to time."

Some tombstones fall over and their weight eventually sinks them into the ground. Klaasen said it's like the stone 'returned to the earth.' (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Money is an ongoing issue for those who run graveyards as preservation is expensive. And where that money comes from depends on the type of graveyard in question. Some have asked municipalities for cash, while others have opted for crowd funding.

Wilson said the society hasn't come up with a long-term solution for grave repairs and is open to suggestions.

"I wish we could do something more. I wish we could force the municipalities [to fix them] … but we just can't."

'We won't have any history'

Woodland Cemetery in London is funding some of its monument conservation through the Canada Summer Jobs program. They've hired two young women, Robyn Lacy and Brienna French, to tend to the cemetery's old graves.

They've been on the job a few weeks now, cleaning monuments, piecing together those that have fallen apart and straightening up leaning tombstones. They've even created a pamphlet on how to clean your own headstone.

Toppled monuments and tombstones like these can be found in graveyards around the province. Fixing them is like a game of whack-a-mole. When one fix is complete, a problem with another pops up because these graves are so old. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

The pair are working primarily in the older parts of the cemetery. The older the stones, the more problems tend to pop up.

"Everytime we walk through the cemetery … we just point at everything, 'We need to do that and that and that,'" said French. "We need to move into the cemetery so we can just fix everything in our spare time," added Lacy.

For French, it's just another summer job. But for Lacy, it's a career. She has two degrees in archeology, specializing in burial archeology. She even writes a blog she calls Spade and the Grave, tackling death, burials and archeology.

Lacy uses all sorts of tools to fix up the graves: shovels, knee pads, pin flags, a trusty probing rod and a tube of Wet and Wild Cherry Frost lipstick to mark where to drill on tombstones they are putting back together. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

She hopes to get people more comfortable with death so they can repair their relatives' graves.

"It's the last piece of someone that is left visible on earth ... so if we can bring that back up, they are sort of brought back into memory."

She's driven by a sense of history, something Klaasen echoes.

Klaasen knows the average person probably hasn't given tomb conservation much thought. But he said that changes when someone they love dies and is put next to graves that are falling apart. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

"We're a relatively young country. And if we don't start taking proactive measures now to preserve our history, we won't have any history," he said. "It's that simple to me. The cemetery is the history of the towns of Ontario and Canada."

About the Author

Haydn Watters is a roving reporter for Ontario, primarily serving the province's local radio shows. He has worked for CBC News and CBC Radio in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and the entertainment unit. He also ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.