Unearthing Calgary’s past

By Nicole Kobie

It’s not just a walk in the park. While the surroundings are as beautiful as any inner-city greenspace, graveyards have gravity and serenity. The ground isn’t just grass, it’s a place where someone’s loved one is eternally resting.

Union Cemetery–part of what’s commonly called Cemetery Hill–has another feeling about it, one of history. Few other places in the city are as old as Union, which opened in 1890, and still operates today.

Though it was nearly at capacity by the 1920s, funerals are infrequently held at Union. Some families still own plots, and now and then some are sold back to the city. Former Alberta Lieutenant Governor Grant MacEwan was buried there in 2000, and a small number of headstones bear years after that. For those who don’t own a plot and are unable to find one for sale, cremation plots allow ashes to be interred at the old cemetery.

“All that’s available right now are the cremation plots. Some burial plots have been sold back over the years and been put on the market. At present, those are all sold,” said Calgary Cemeteries Foreman Joe Blunden.”Some plots were purchased in the past, and are now just being used.”

Though burials are sporadic, the Union Cemetery still has a purpose. The sheer beauty of the grounds, the Reader Rock Garden and the old-fashioned entrance archway draw wedding parties for photos. But more important is the history. Walking tours during the summer months, and books, such as Harry Sanders’ Calgary’s Historic Union Cemetery: A Walking Guide, offer interested parties the chance to explore on their own.

“Cemeteries can be seen as museums, and there are different levels of interpretation,” said Don Sucha, the practicum coordinator for the Museum and Heritage Studies Program at the University of Calgary.

“When cemeteries first came to being they were a connection with the family. It was an old Victorian ideal. After World War I we kind of lost that. Now, they’re not so much a bridge to the next world but a bridge to the past.”

The Union Cemetery opened in 1890 because of the population growth in Calgary. In the 1870s and 1880s, the only cemetery was the Catholic St. Mary’s, located across Macleod Trail from Union. The city created a non-denominational cemetary prior to Union at Shaganappi Point, but not only was it too far away, the soil wasn’t suitable for burials.

“Some of the oldest burials at Union were moved from Shaganappi point, which was closed down when they opened Union in 1891,” said Blunden. “The process of moving the bodies didn’t finish until 1930 or so.”

Because it’s so old, many graves aren’t marked. Open areas may simply be unused plots or missing headstones. One unmarked area known as Potters Field holds the bodies of about a thousand poor, unnamed or criminal people. Most striking is its size. For an area holding the bodies of a thousand people, it’s very small.

“It’s interesting because of the unknown nature, and that it’s just so many people,” said Sucha.

While most buried in Potters Field are unknown even by records, one man stands out. Though he has no stone marking his grave, Ernest Cashel was too intriguing to be forgotten. Arrested for forging cheques in 1902, Cashel escaped from prison. While on the run, he murdered a farmer. By the next spring, Cashel was captured, but managed to escape yet again. According to Sanders’ book, the day before Cashel was hung, he wrote a letter of advice to young men, warning them to “stay at home, shun novels, bad company and cigarettes.”

Of the estimated fifty to sixty thousand individuals interred at Union, most have a marker. The size, style and inscriptions of headstones vary. Some are simple plaques with just the name and the date while others are intricately carved works of art. Some are made from badly eroded limestone, while others are marble statues that still shine in the sun.

More interesting than the stones is who they celebrate. Walk through any of the 22 sections, and surnames will be familiar, be it from street, school or park names.

“Almost every pioneer in Calgary, you can find them in there,” said Blunden.

Everyone from George McMahon to Louise Riley, from Thomas Edworthy to Nat Christie, are buried in the hills of Union Cemetery.

One of most noticeable sites is that of Colonel James Macleod, the man attributed with naming Calgary. He died poor, apparently leaving behind a wife, five children and eight dollars. Though his original grave badly deteriorated, a grey granite monument replaced it in the 1920s, where it still stands overlooking his namesake road. Because of the tall Union Jack flag flying overhead, it’s an easy memorial to find.

Members of the North West Mounted Police–like Macleod–and later the RCMP, had special areas set aside for them. However, no section is as moving as the one set aside for soldiers who managed to return from the Great War. The Field of Honour memorializes 173 veterans with monuments matching those found in Commonwealth military cemeteries across the globe. The uniformity is striking, and though so many are buried there, many more soldiers–some of whom died overseas–are interred in family plots. By the mid-1920s, Union Cemetery ran out of room, and Fields of Honour were created at neighbouring Burnsland and St. Mary’s cemeteries.

Certain hilltops in Union Cemetery offer views of both Burnsland and St. Mary’s, as well as well the Chinese Cemetery across Macleod Trail. With a busy road running between, and the C-Train running below, it’s easy to overlook the history in the area. Though Calgary has often been accused of having no past, we are not the first generation to live in this city.

“We do have history, we have a short history. Calgary goes back to 1875,” said Sucha. “What’s nice about that is that we can get a handle on that history. Because it’s shorter, we can do more detail and keep the past in the palm of our hands.”

Though Union seems more like an inner city park, with the tall trees blocking the view and the Reader Rock Gardens, it’s impossible to ignore the graveyard. Something about it, the history or the long-forgotten memories, creates a solitude that invokes a reflection on our past. There are few places in Calgary that offer such a glimpse to the past in a mere walk through a park.

Though Private Frederick William Copas lies buried in a war cemetery in France, a stone (right) in Union remembers him with "In Memory Of Dear Old Fred/Killed In Action/Vimy Ridge/April 9, 1917/Aged 21 Years."

Colonel James F. Macleod’s original headstone eroded, so a new granite one (right) was built in the 1920s, with the inscription: "This monument is erected by past and present members of the nwmp force as a mark of respect for their old commander and comrade, and to shew their sense of his worth." His grave overlooks his namesake street.

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