Ontario has a grave problem — its tombstones are falling apart
Old, leaning, loose and broken tombstones litter cemeteries with no clear long-term fix
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."
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."
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."
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."
When Tom enters a graveyard, his eyes start darting back and forth, spotting all the problems with the graves. Here are two he was quick to spot during a cemetery tour in Sarnia. <a href="https://twitter.com/CBCSuperiorMorn?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@CBCSuperiorMorn</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/MorningNorth?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@MorningNorth</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/CBCOntMorning?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@CBCOntMorning</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/craignorriscbc?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@craignorriscbc</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/LondonMorning?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@LondonMorning</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/WindsorMorning?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@WindsorMorning</a> <a href="https://t.co/VgIq1FVuUQ">pic.twitter.com/VgIq1FVuUQ</a>—@HaydnWatters
'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.
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.
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.
"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."