Monument erected to honour 400 buried in unmarked grave

The unmarked grave of more than 400 of Perth's working poor will now be honoured with a monument.

Hundreds of Perth's destitute died at the local 'industry house' and were buried anonymously

This headstone names and honours the more than 400 people whose remains were discovered in an unmarked grave in Perth, Ont. (Eric Halpin)

A monument now honours more than 400 working poor who were buried anonymously and unceremoniously in Perth, Ont., a century ago.   

The men and women buried in Perth's Elmwood Cemetery lived, worked and died at the old Perth House of Industry — a 20th-century poor house — between 1903 and 1965. 

"It was a very different time in Canada," said Eric Halpin, president of the Perth Cemetery Company. "They were nameless, homeless, and when they died they had to be disposed of quickly."

Eric Halpin, president of the Perth Cemetery Company, has made it a personal mission to find the names of the 400 unmarked dead. (Eric Halpin)

At a time when caskets were uncommon, bodies were wrapped in bed sheets and buried the same day without ceremony or grave marker, Halpin said. No autopsies were performed.

The bodies were discovered over time by Perth Cemetery Company workers digging new graves, who kept finding human remains in areas of the cemetery they expected to be empty. Workers immediately reburied the remains.

I feel strongly that they should be recognized.- Eric Halpin, Perth Cemetery Company president

As the remains were uncovered, Halpin decided to research the identities of those in the unmarked grave. Using an old survey map and original records of the cemetery, he realized it was residents of Perth's old poor house who were buried there.

The "industry house" would give shelter and food in exchange for work to anyone who provided their name, age, marital status and sex.

Going to a poor house was a measure of last resort for the destitute, and was the foundation for what would evolve into government-funded social services. In the early 1900s the province mandated every county to have a place of refuge.

The Perth House of Industry, where each of the 400 individuals in the unmarked grave spent their final days. (Vintage Smiths Falls & Perth/Facebook)

When he realized what he had discovered, Halpin and others in the community wanted to do something to commemorate those buried there.

"[Cemeteries] truly honour the people that went before us," Halpin said. "I feel strongly that they should be recognized."

Halpin said that as his story spread, people reached out to him, asking him to shed light on what had happened to friends and family who had disappeared decades ago. He was able to identify many of them, and their names appear on a two-sided black granite monument that was dedicated earlier this month. 

Other unmarked graves of people who died in poor houses have been discovered across Ontario, including one near Waterloo, Ont.