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Many of our ancestors rest in lost, hidden cemeteries in Newmarket area

In this week's Remember This, Newmarket, History Hound Richard MacLeod shares details about a subject that has fascinated him since he was a child

Since I was a child, I’ve had an interest in the lost or hidden cemeteries around town.

If you have joined me on one of my heritage walking tours, particularly my ghost walk, you will recall me talking about all the burial grounds that are still there, under buildings, pavement, and quite often, in the middle of farmers fields. 

Allow me to introduce you to a world that you may not have realized was out there. By definition, a cemetery is any location or piece of ground that has been set aside for the burying of the dead. The word was first applied to the early Christian catacombs and generally referred to cemeteries located next to churches.

From about the 7th century, European burials were under the guidance of the church and located on consecrated church grounds. Practices varied, of course, but, in continental Europe, bodies were usually buried in a mass grave until they had decomposed. The bones were then exhumed and stored in ossuaries, either along the arcaded bounding walls of the cemetery or within the church under floor slabs and behind walls.

Our habit of burying the dead in land enclosed within the city walls would often have a negative impact on our health. Therefore, some cemeteries were moved away from heavily populated areas.

As an example, in the late 18th century, skeletons exhumed from major Paris cemeteries were moved into ossuaries in the catacombs, and burials were prohibited within inner-city locations.

Cemetery companies and municipally owned cemeteries, independent from churches and their churchyards, date largely from the early 19th century. In their landscaped or garden cemetery form, the cemetery reform movement began around 1740 and there were a small number of earlier extramural burial grounds.

Most of us think of cemeteries as those established by private companies and comprising spacious, landscaped, burial grounds, usually located outside of the original city limits.

In my parents and grandparents’ day, a cemetery was regarded as a sacred area, often including churches or other religious buildings (chapels). The violation of the graves or buildings was considered a serious crime and punishments were often very severe.  

Sadly, we have become considerably laxer, with damage to monuments a major issue. The burials were held sacred then, the idea of moving or building on sacred ground was rarely considered.

The problem, of course, is that cemeteries in urban areas take up valuable urban space, which can become a problem over time. As historic cemeteries began to reach their capacity, alternative memorialization, such as collective memorials for cremated individuals, becoming more common. 

It is clear that different cultures have different attitudes toward the destruction of cemeteries and the use of the land for construction.  

Locally, we see graves were traditionally respected for a century or more. In many cases, however, after a suitable period of time had elapsed, the headstones are removed, and the now former cemeteries are converted to recreational parks or construction sites. It is these instances that I want to examine further.

One of the projects I undertook in association with my uncle, George Luesby, was the identification of forgotten “cemeteries” around town, 12 to be exact. We found that they take many forms but are, in every way, still a cemetery.  

Today, as we push the boundaries of our town further and further, we come upon burial grounds that at one time were on farmlands.

While uncommon today, if not illegal, family or private cemeteries were a matter of practicality during the settlement of our area. If a municipal or religious cemetery had not been established, the settlers would seek out a small plot of land, often in wooded areas bordering their fields, to begin a family plot. The period between the passing of the individual and their internment needed to be short.

Sometimes, several families would arrange to bury their dead together. While some of these sites later grew into true cemeteries, many were forgotten after a family moved away or died out.

Today, it is not unheard of to discover groupings of tombstones, ranging from a few to a dozen or more, on undeveloped land. Little effort is made to remove remains by developers, as they may be hundreds of years old, the tombstones are often simply removed.

Many locations have been found recently that are Indigenous burial grounds; an organized necropolis, or simply an area with highly symbolic elements around it.

I should confess that I do not believe in the moving of bodies, building over cemeteries, or re-locating monuments. I would like to think that when I pass, and I am interred, that it will be forever and that I will rest undisturbed. Now that I have stated my personal prejudice, we can move on to some of the 12 cemeteries we identified that exist around us and have been re-purposed.

These cemeteries fall into three main categories. We have burials either beside an existing church, such as the Catholic church on Ontario Street or the Christian Baptist church on Main Street, hidden under a parking lot or sculptured garden.

Then you have pieces of land on which a church was torn down or relocated, such as the location of the Alexander Muir School. The tombstones were sometimes moved to one of the large cemeteries, but usually the bodies were left where they were.

The second category of cemetery is those no longer active but maintained as a memorial to those resting there, usually family or private plots, most often part of a former farm and easily identified.

Until the arrival of the developers, they were as an oasis of trees usually located in the middle of a farmer’s field. The Selby, Hughes or Holbourne burial sites are excellent examples of family plots in our immediate area. 

Finally, we have the institutional burial sites such as the one located at the old site of the Industrial Home, on the corner of Eagle and Yonge Street, where the provincial courthouse currently sits.

We may never know how many people are still buried there, their names and exact location seemingly lost. Be sure to check out my article on the Industrial Home for more information on this issue.

There are still homes in the area that have gravestones embedded in their basement walls or backyards.

The issue of what to do with the remains of our ancestors will remain with us well into the future, as we continue to expand and social mores change and the sanctity of burial is challenged, weighted against progress and profit.

Check out the map that I have attached with this article and perhaps drive around town and explore. Remember though, you are walking on our ancestors resting places and so respect is paramount.

Sources: The History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella; The Hidden Burial Grounds of Newmarket by George Luesby and Richard MacLeod; Oral History Interviews conducted by Richard MacLeod; The Newmarket Era; The Newmarket Historical Society Minutes; Skeletal Remains from Prospect Hill by Hill, Dudar and Austin

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NewmarketToday.ca brings you this weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, a local historian for more than 40 years. He conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, as well as leads local oral history interviews. You can contact the History Hound at thehistoryhound@rogers.com.




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About the Author: Richard MacLeod

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years
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