Nova Scotia·Point of View

Thousands of people are buried under downtown Halifax. What are they owed?

Halifax's old city is a veritable necropolis, containing the remains of approximately 20,000 people, writes archeologist Jonathan Fowler. How does a modern city serve both its living and dead citizens?

Halifax's old city is a veritable necropolis, containing the remains of approximately 20,000 people

In 1913, construction workers in Halifax unearthed human skulls and other skeletal remains near Spring Garden Road.

But it could just as easily have happened yesterday because in this city, we don't always think before we dig.

The 1913 discovery "caused no little speculation as to how these remains of a former generation came to be buried in this section of the town," according to The Halifax Mail.

But there is really no mystery to it.

The property in question — today a parking lot at the corner of Grafton Street and Spring Garden — was "the old burying ground connected with St. Peter's, the first Roman Catholic church erected in Halifax."

The old church is long gone, replaced by St. Mary's Cathedral Basilica, but many of its parishioners still rest, unacknowledged, beneath the asphalt.

This parking lot is next to where St. Peter's Church once stood (where St. Mary's Basilica is today) and the bodies of parishoners are still buried beneath the asphalt, says Halifax archeologist Jonathan Fowler. (Robert Short/CBC)

Researchers Gordon Pollock and Sharon Riel estimate 3,000 people were buried on the property between 1784 and 1843.

And there were others.

This part of early Halifax is a veritable necropolis — a city of the dead — containing the remains of approximately 20,000 people in at least five cemeteries.

The oldest and best known is The Old Burying Ground at the corner of Spring Garden and Barrington Street, just opposite Government House.

It began in 1749 as a square-acre plot located just beyond the walled town's south gate. It doubled in size in 1762, but its southern border has since been cut back, stranding an unknown number of burial plots on what would become Dalhousie University's Sexton Campus.

This part of early Halifax is a veritable necropolis – a city of the dead – containing the remains of approximately 20,000 people in at least five cemeteries.

By the time the Old Burying Ground officially closed in 1844, the remains of approximately 12,000 people had been interred there. Only about 10 per cent were provided with headstones, which seems incredible given the vast congregation of monuments dotting the site.

In fact, the Old Burying Ground's gravestones constitute one of the best-preserved collections of early mortuary art in Canada, and it is partly for this reason that it was designated a national historic site in 1991.

This special place was not always appreciated, though.

Halifax's Downtown Merchants' Association petitioned city council in 1958 to pave it over to create a city-owned parking lot for local businesses. Public outrage flattened the proposal instead, but other cemeteries in the neighbourhood were not so well defended.

Just uphill from The Old Burying Ground, but still outside the town wall, was a cemetery serving early Halifax's small Jewish community. It is vaguely noted as early as the 1750s, but it has since disappeared and may have since been destroyed by construction.

Nearby, the oversized bronze statue of Winston Churchill at the old Halifax Memorial Library paces blindly across a humbler burial ground. There were probably no grave markers here because this cemetery, which operated for about 100 years from around 1761, was reserved for inmates of the nearby poor house.

Historian Allan Marble estimates approximately 4,500 people were interred here. Many of their graves would have been disturbed when the old library was built. The soil excavated from that building's basement, which was presumably spread over the site, likely contains countless fragments of human remains.

Many more graves are probably intact beyond the old library's walls, but those who dwelled on the hard margins of colonial society remain as unacknowledged in death as they were in life. Their only monument, a cruel irony, is the poverty still haunting this place.

Halifax regional council recently voted unanimously to grant heritage status to the Memorial Library, at the corner of Spring Garden Road and Grafton Street. (Robert Short/CBC)

The last of downtown Halifax's five mostly invisible cemeteries occupies the property on which stands the Presbyterian Church of St. David, familiar to most Haligonians as the imposing brick church overlooking Pizza Corner. Between 1793 and 1844 this was the burying place of Halifax's Methodists.

Even more than their poorer next-door neighbours, these deceased Haligonians have had to make way for construction.

A wooden church was built over part of the cemetery shortly after interments ceased. Following a fire, it was replaced by the stone and brick building we see today.

Subsequent modifications and additions have continued to recent times, and, in 2016 and 2017, construction of the Grafton Park Apartments necessitated archeological excavation and reburial of at least 244 individuals.

Until recently, only one of these five cemeteries — the Old Burying Ground — has had any official heritage status. With it comes some level of protection, but we have already seen that even this nationally significant site was once nearly destroyed. The others have been paved over, built upon, or lost completely.

Nova Scotia's Cemeteries and Monuments Protection Act declares that, "No person may use a cemetery for any purpose other than for the burial or permanent placement of human remains or memorialization."

But the finer print is not so resolute. In any case, it is one thing to have a law and another to have a law enforced.

Halifax regional council recently voted unanimously to grant heritage status to the Memorial Library. Crucially, and on account of the historically well-attested Poor House Cemetery, the designation includes the property as well as the building.

This map shows the boundaries of the old city of Halifax, and where bodies were buried just outside the city limits. (Submitted by Jonathan Fowler)

City officials still appear eager to see new construction on the property, but the heritage designation is likely to slow the process and require more meaningful public involvement.

The full spectrum of early Halifax society is represented in the cemetery: residents and visitors, soldiers and civilians, and men, women, and children from all communities, including the African Nova Scotian and Mi'kmaw communities. 

We can expect the old Halifax Memorial Library site's future to become a focus of increased public discussion and debate in the months ahead. However, the poor house cemetery does not exist in isolation and the questions it raises reach far beyond its boundaries.

What do we owe those who came before us?

A quiet resting place? A monument? Nothing at all? And what care is due to their works?

As a matter of policy, one of Canada's oldest urban communities still has no coherent answers and no plan to steward and mobilize its rapidly diminishing archeological inheritance.




Jonathan Fowler teaches in the Anthropology Department at Saint Mary’s University. He posts regular updates on archaeological research in Nova Scotia at