Cemeteries and Family Histories

(Originally published on the Clayton McLain Memorial Museum blog.)

The Cut Knife Cemetery, like so many others in Saskatchewan, is over one hundred years old and, meandering through on a Sunday afternoon, it’s easy to recognize the older graves. Lettering has eroded on many of the softer marble stones, and names and dates on others have filled with mosses and lichens, both of which make the inscriptions difficult to read, and the graves to identify. A few headstones have broken, a few plots have remained unmarked for reasons unknown. Perhaps, there are records that can fill in the gaps, perhaps not.

Cemetery records everywhere, especially the older ones, are notorious for having been lost, or damaged, or destroyed in fire and flood. This makes it especially difficult for families who are searching, at a distance, for an ancestor. A grave connects a person to a place, and provides a context; a grave marker records vital statistics. Sometimes, a marker can also shed light on a personality through the choice of epitaph, the presence of religious or association symbols, nicknames, etc. When both records are no longer accessible, a vital piece of family history is lost.

Many rural cemeteries are cared for by volunteers, and are just not in a position, financially, to undertake large restoration projects. In addition, the volunteer hours required to clean, photograph, and annotate a whole cemetery of headstones is probably not realistic, either. Maybe, a simpler approach would work . . . providing online accessibility to researchers. . . 24/7?

Grave markers in disrepair

CanadianHeadstones.com is a volunteer-driven, not-for-profit organization that archives photos and text of cemetery grave markers submitted by individuals, or cemetery committees. The Clayton McLain Memorial Museum has listed it on their Family History | Canada page as a genealogy resource. The Cut Knife Cemetery, and the Carruthers Cemetery are already represented online with a number of photos to view for each.

The next time you’re wandering through your local cemetery with your phone or digital camera, consider digitizing your family’s headstones, and sharing them online with those who may be searching for them. In all probability, if any part of the headstone is illegible, you or a family member would have the knowledge needed to record the correct information.

From Medals to Movies; From Letters to Photos to Jewellery…

(Originally published on the Windscape Book Company blog.)

A few years ago my siblings and I inherited a huge collection of boxes and trunks belonging to our parents. These also included, as we were soon to discover, items passed down from their parents, as well. Each container was full of treasures and, soon, we were leafing through family bibles, sorting through a hundred years worth of photos, untangling medals and service pins, and trying to identify odd pieces of obsolete technology.

Once the final tub had been inspected, we sat back and looked at each other. I can’t remember who spoke first but it was soon apparent we had no idea where to start, or how to go about the huge task of sorting, apportioning, and / or throwing away the family history spread out before of us. In fact, we were so overwhelmed by it all we simply boxed everything back up and packed it away, out of sight, in my attic, where it’s remained for the last five years.

And, I suspect, it would have stayed there indefinitely – well, probably forever – gathering cobwebs if I hadn’t discovered something at our local library: A two volume set entitled Help! I’ve Inherited an Attic Full of History by Althea Douglas. If anyone reading this post ever finds themselves in this same position, needing to sort through someone’s lifetime accumulation of personal possessions, these books are absolutely the first stop to make before tackling the job.

Douglas starts at the very beginning of the process with ideas on how to split the job between family members; how to assess what you’ve just unpacked and then how to evaluate it all. She explains how to determine historical value and where to look to establish a monetary value for collections and collectibles. She provides guidelines for giving items away to archives, historical societies, and libraries but, also reminds us that, sometimes, an item’s value lies more in its sentimental worth to the family. Douglas includes a Chronology for technology that covers cameras, sewing machines, calculators and computers, film, video, and sound equipment. There’s also a Glossary, and a Bibliography along with Notes, and Sources. And, that’s just Volume I. Volume II is all about how to care for, and preserve the things you’ve decided to keep, and contains just as much essential reference material as the first book.

Attic spider websThe first thing I learned was that my attic was the wrong place to store our collection of memorabilia. In fact, these kinds of materials require dry conditions with a constant temperature, which means unheated garages and barns, and cold, damp basements are out of the question, too. So, number one on the agenda, now, is to haul out the almost two dozen boxes tucked away in the crawl space upstairs. Number two, is to call my siblings. Or should it be the other way around?

Help! I’ve Inherited an Attic Full of History, Volume 1: Dating, evaluating and disposing of the accumulation of a lifetime.  Althea Douglas, M.A., D.G.(C) Published in Toronto by The Ontario Genealogical Society, 1998. 92 pp

Help! I’ve Inherited an Attic Full of History, Volume II: Archival conservation in the home environment.  Althea Douglas, M.A., D.G.(C) Published in Toronto by The Ontario Genealogical Society, 1999. 94 pp