Near the foot of our road, just before where the old gray pavement turns to rutted, packed dirt, there is a small white church. It’s an old church, one of the one-room sorts, seating perhaps thirty or forty people at full capacity. It dates back to the mid-1800s, and is typical of the structures of the time, with a small belfry and a mudroom off the front where churchgoers would enter.
I’m sure there was probably a plaque on the side of the building, or a stone set into the foundation, that would tell me the exact age of the church, but I didn’t think to look. I was distracted by the stones that were set, in rows, in the carefully groomed area surrounding the church. I find cemeteries fascinating, particularly the old ones. Looking at the stones and contemplating the lives of those people who came before us, who may have been gone for a hundred years or more.
This was the oldest stone I noticed there. These days headstones are often granite, a sturdy rock that stands up to time well, but old stones of the 1800s were virtually all carved into marble or limestone, because they’re soft rocks and easy to manipulate, but also easy to obtain. There are some marble deposits along the shore of Birch Lake, one lake south of us, noted on the map for Frontenac Provincial Park (which points out interesting sights and sites of historical interest within the park). Over the years the marble slowly erodes and the text, which presumably was crisp and easily legible when it was first carved, gradually becomes softened and hard to discern.
Given the age of this stone, I’m impressed that it still retains such a clear engraving; I attribute it in part to the fact that the stone had started to lean forward, sheltering the carved side from the direct effects of the weather. The name is hard to make out now – does it say Terrey Berley? Tellen Burle? – but the date is clear: Christmas eve, 1856. Aged 41 years. Even just reading this information makes you pause and wonder about their life. Did he (or she) die of natural causes? Perhaps they were ill, pneumonia wouldn’t’ve been uncommon, particularly in winter. What would they have been doing that Christmas eve if they weren’t ill? They died quite young, just 41 years.
Grown over, scattered with fallen pine needles and covered in lichen, this stone was the second-oldest I came across. The date on the left side reads 1889, though I can’t make out the month. At the top of the left it reads “In Memory of Mary Timmerman, wife of”, but her husband’s name is obscured. Under the date it gives her age at death. I only noticed this additional line once I got home, but I think it says aged 35 years. On the right are two of her children, Elizabeth, aged 5 yrs, and Catherine, aged 8 months. Child mortality during the 1800s was about 20%, due to various diseases and infections, so seeing the two daughters listed isn’t a surprise. Given her age, 35, she herself may have died during childbirth, also not unusual during that time period. In modern North America the rate of mortality of the mothers is only about 9 in 100,000 births, while in developing worlds, and in times pre-dating modern medicine, it can be as high as 900 in 100,000 births or more. That’s nearly 1 in every 100 births. One of the primary reasons was hemorrhaging or other injury due to a large baby and small pelvis, or improper delivery position of the baby.
Alarmingly, while it still remains exceptionally rare, the rate of women dying during childbirth is beginning to creep upwards again. A report (as summarized in this article) indicates that the death rate of mothers has increased by about 40% in the last 20 years, and the reason is because in the relatively rich cultures of developed nations more mothers are overweight or obese, which can lead to serious complications. Of nearly 300 mothers who died in childbirth between 2003 and 2005, half were overweight or obese, and 15% were considered extremely obese. The primary cause of death in these cases is heart disease, and the complications in care as a result of it.
This is another woman who died young. The stone says, “In memory of Jenny Fyfe, wife of Oliver Orser. Died May 13, 1902, aged 35 years.” Perhaps she died in childbirth, perhaps she fell ill, the stone doesn’t say. On the right is her husband’s engraving, on the same stone: “In memory of Oliver Orser. Died June 6, 1936, aged 66 years.” He outlived his wife by quite a few years. It’s interesting that on these stones the women’s all say, if they were married, who their husband was, while the men’s make no mention of a spouse. Most women didn’t have their own identity back then, they were either associated with their father or their husband.
There were two families that made up the majority of the stones in the old section of the cemetery. The Orsers were one of them, with half a dozen stones all from about the same date range. The men, perhaps brothers, and their wives and children. The Orsers seemed to prefer these tall, obelisk-ish stones, with multiple family members engraved on each, one per side.
The other family were the Snooks, who preferred this shorter, but more imposing, style of stone. This stone belongs to Oliver Snook (Oliver seemed to be a common name then) and his daughter Maggie. Maggie died at 7 years old, and under her dates of birth and death it says “At rest.” I didn’t notice such a statement on any of the other stones, so does that mean that she was violently ill during her last days, and now she’s finally at rest? Or is it just one of those generic statements that goes on headstones, but has no particular circumstantial meaning. Oliver died 14 years after his daughter, aged 64 years. That means he was 50 when Maggie was born. Perhaps Maggie wasn’t his daughter after all, but then what relation would she have been, to share a headstone with Oliver? On the other hand, men are capable of having children when they’re older, and if he had a younger wife or a large family, having a new child at age 50 wouldn’t be too surprising.
Visiting cemeteries and reading the headstones, wondering about the people whose names are engraved into the monument and what their life must have been like, it always makes me feel very contemplative. It also makes me keenly aware of my own mortality, and that of all the people I know and love, and inevitably I end up feeling sad at our inevitable demise. Perhaps not so much my own, but of those near to me. We don’t know when death will come to take any of us, but knowing that our time with our loved ones is unavoidably limited, we should make sure we spend time with them now, while they’re here with us (or we’re here with them), while they’re (or we’re) in good health, while there’s still lots of time to enjoy life and being alive. I think all of us, in today’s busy, fast-paced culture, concentrating on working out our own lives, we’re all guilty of not doing this nearly enough.