Ottawa

19th-century funeral held for remains found beneath parking lot

The remains of a person who died nearly 200 years ago were reinterred Sunday at Beechwood Cemetery in what will hopefully be their final resting spot.

Unidentified remains laid to rest at Beechwood Cemetery

A horse-drawn hearse carries the remains of an unidentified person to their final resting place in Ottawa's Beechwood Cemetery on Oct. 6, 2019. The remains, uncovered during work on a Sparks Street parking lot in 2015, are at least 170 years old. (Kimberley Molina/CBC)

The remains of a person who died nearly 200 years ago were reinterred Sunday at Beechwood Cemetery in what will hopefully be their final resting spot.

They were discovered along with at least 29 others — seven children and 23 adults — while work was being performed on a surface-level Sparks Street parking lot in 2015, built on what had once been part of the Barrack Hill Cemetery.

The cemetery, which pre-dated Ottawa, existed from 1826 until 1845. The remains were excavated in the summer of 2016. 

Sunday's solemn ecumenical funeral service included poems and hymns typical of those held around the time of the person's death.

A Union Jack hung behind the small black pine casket.

"We were trying to provide them with a ceremony they would recognize, something that would have happened in their time," said Janet Young, curator of physical anthropology at the Canadian Museum of History.

A bagpiper from the Ottawa Police Service Pipe Band played at the end of the service, as the casket was placed in a horse-drawn carriage and carried to the new Barrack Hill Cemetery inside Beechwood Cemetery in east Ottawa.

The remains of the others found during the parking lot work were buried on Friday. 

'The rate of death was appreciable'

It's not entirely certain when the original Barack Hill Cemetery was closed.

The land was expropriated from Nicholas Sparks, a notable landowner in 19th-century Bytown. Court documents from his attempt to win it back, Young said, revealed the graveyard had been a little less than a hectare in size and had been closed by 1845 because it was full.

That means around 500 people were buried in the cemetery in less than 20 years, at a time when the population of Bytown was only a couple thousand people.

This black casket holds the remains of an unknown person who was buried in the former Barrack Hill Cemetery. Their remains were uncovered during construction work in 2015, and on Sunday they were given a 19th-century funeral. (Kimberley Molina/CBC)

"You're looking at a hard-working population. Children that would have been exposed to diseases that of course we don't recognize today," she said.

"Their nutrition wasn't always very good. Life expectancy was, you know, 45 for the working class ... so the rate of death was appreciable."

Metal box preserved remains

Under the Sparks Street parking lot alone, there were 14 burial sites, said Young.

Some were empty, a result of remains previously being moved to other cemeteries. But one, she said, contained a metal box with partial remains of at least 15 people, including skulls and teeth.

The remains ranged from fetuses to people in their mid-40s.

Researchers believe that in the early 20th century, someone came in to dig a trench, collected the remains, put them in the box and buried it below the trench.

That act also probably preserved the bones.

Janet Young, a curator of physical anthropology at the Canadian Museum of History, has studied the remains of those who were buried in Barrack Hill Cemetery, when Ottawa was known as Bytown. (Kimberley Molina/CBC)

As downtown Ottawa rose up above the former cemetery, the weight of the parking lot and vehicles crushed and warped the bones that weren't inside the metal box, Young said.

The bones also tell a story of some of the first European settlers in Ottawa, a place that was once mainly forest and swamp.

"If I look at the adults in the cemetery, I see that almost all of them have these indications that their childhoods were difficult. And yet they survived," Young said.

"You know that they were strong in that sense, that they were able to make it past these stresses and live into adulthood."