When an Anglican church in Canada wanted to build a new parish hall in the 1980s, leaders ran into a problem that many churches in urban areas contend with: deciding what to do with old graves on property that’s in demand for development.
Parishioners had been buried in the churchyard at St. Thomas Anglican Church in Belleville, Ontario, between 1821 and 1874. The church got permission from the provincial government to close the cemetery and build the hall, with the stipulation that the bodies be removed.
Normally, the bodies would have been removed with a backhoe, but a Trent University student from Belleville told professor Heather McKillop, now a geography and anthropology professor at LSU, about the church’s plans — and so began a four-month project excavating and studying more than 500 bodies found at the site.
McKillop spoke on Saturday to the Baton Rouge Genealogical and Historical Society about the project, which unveiled details of the lives of the settlers of Ontario and their burial traditions. McKillop said she still finds research value in her discoveries there, noting that cemeteries offer a wealth of information about culture and history.
“The rise of the cemetery industry, the rise of the Victorian glorification of death was ... a phenomenon that was throughout North America, particularly in the Northeast and Southeast” in the 1800s, when people were buried in the St. Thomas churchyard, McKillop said.
New technologies like 3-D scanners and printers offer a way to preserve decaying artifacts like headstones and coffin handles — something McKillop is working on at LSU’s Digital Imaging and Visualization in Archaelogy Lab, which she oversees.
When McKillop, then a professor at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, asked church leaders about doing an excavation project in 1989, they told her “a few” bodies needed to be moved from a corner of the churchyard to build the new facility.
Lacking a map or much other information, McKillop and her students began their work. In one week, they found 60 to 80 bodies in the one corner of the yard, suggesting there could be more than 1,000 bodies in the entire space.
The church downsized plans for the hall so that many bodies wouldn’t have to be disinterred, McKillop said. Between May and August 1989, the team excavated 579 bodies, 80 of which it was able to identify by name, and mapped their graves. Locals were intrigued by the process.
“There was no one who had people who had just died there,” McKillop said. “This is a cemetery that had been not in use for a long time, so people didn’t have a sense of recent death. They were interested in the people, and they were interested if we had found any of their ancestors.”
Just as archaeologists in Louisiana typically cannot find well-preserved skeletons because of the hot, humid climate, McKillop wasn’t sure what to expect in Belleville, where the ground freezes and thaws. The St. Thomas churchyard, however, has sandy soil that does not hold water and allows it to percolate through, so McKillop’s team found skeletons that were mostly intact.
They also found coffin handles, a sign of the growing funeral and cemetery industry of the 19th century. Traditionally, coffins were made locally and outfitted with handles designed for furniture, McKillop said. But gradually, more ornate handles could be ordered from catalogs, featuring designs with open Bibles, clasped hands and butterflies.
Children’s coffins had smaller handles and distinct decorations, such as cherubs, lambs or cowboy motifs.
McKillop said her 3-D models of the coffin handles could be useful for researchers in places like Louisiana, where it is unlikely to find many bones but people had similar burial traditions.