The Cemetery and Cultural Memory: Montreal, 1860-1900

Article excerpt


The common conception that the cemetery is a site of memory for all who died and were buried before us is a false one. There were certain biases in who was being commemorated, a form of selectivity to the memorial process that caused a great number of people to be eroded from the landscape. The argument is based on observations from a sample of seventeen hundred individuals from the latter half of the nineteenth century in Montreal. A selection of twelve surnames from archival data includes the three main cultures present in Montreal in the nineteenth century (French Canadians, Irish Catholics and English Protestants) and allows me to reconstitute families, to identify their kinship ties and to determine their situation in life. Records from the cemeteries on Mount Royal confirm the burial of individuals from the sample. The presence or absence of these individuals in the cemetery landscapes depends on different commemorative practices influenced by religion, culture, gender, status, age and cemetery regulati ons.


Il est faux de croire que le cimetiere conserve la memoire de toutes les personnes disparues et ensevelies. Dans le processus funeraire, il existait des criteres de selection qui ont exclu plusieurs personnes des commemorations. Pour le demontrer, nous avons elabore un echantillon de 1 700 individus de la deuxieme moitie du [XIX.sup.e] siecle. Les douze patronymes retenus des archives consultees representent les trois principaux groupes culturels vivant alors a Montreal: Canadiens francais, catholiques irlandais et protestants anglophones. Cet echantillonnage a permis de reconstituer les familles, de determiner les liens de parente et de preciser le statut social des individus. Les registres des cimetieres du Mont-Royal permettent de confirmer si les sepultures des personnes selectionnees s'y trouvent. Le dernier element depend des pratiques de commemoration motivees par la religion, la culture, le sexe, le statut, l'age et les reglements du cimetiere.


The cemetery is a cultural landscape that represents, albeit slowly, social changes in communities. The landscape of the cemetery as a whole is a residue, which we can use as evidence of social trends, cultural patterns, and prevailing ideologies; and its gravestones are remnants of the ideas and beliefs of the deceased, the people who mourned them, and the society within which they lived. Nevertheless, I argue that the common conception of the cemetery as a site of memory for all is false. In this article, I will identify certain limitations of the cemetery as a site of cultural memory. My primary argument is that there were certain biases about who would be commemorated, a form of selectivity to the memorial process, that caused a great number of people to be eroded from the landscape. Results of an empirical analysis of gravestones missing from the cemetery landscape of Montreal indicate that persons least likely to have been commemorated in the late nineteenth century were young, female, of lower status, Catholic, and French Canadian. It is suggested that the primary factors behind these biases in the landscape of commemoration were: financial, the inability of certain households to afford commemoration; cultural, the willingness of certain groups to expend large sums of money on plots and monuments; and cemetery regulations, with respect to the sale of temporary plots and the allocation of poor grounds.

Past and present examinations of cemeteries have primarily focussed on the existing cemetery landscape and what is known about its conception and development and have also evaluated the community within which it was established. Such studies utilise the most obvious clues found in the landscape to explain the variety and diversity of cemetery and monument design. Foundational cemetery studies by authors such as Kniffen, Francaviglia, Deetz, Meyer, and Sloane (1) attribute meaning to clues such as monument size, design and engraving, and cemetery location, design and layout. …