Stroll through Woodland Cemetery in London’s west end and you’ll come across some familiar names. Labatt. Cronyn. Weldon. Considered an historic site – one that dates back to 1879 – the cemetery is the final resting place for many individuals who helped establish both London and Western.
But if you’ve walked through the cemetery in the recent past, you might have missed some of its Victorian tombstones as they have broken and sunk over time. Because of that, Woodland had patches of land that looked empty for years – until a group of Western students came along.
Thanks to a Canada Summer Jobs grant, Woodland manager Paul Culliton hired three Western students to work on what he dubbed ‘tombstone archaeology.’ The students spent their summer months unearthing, cleaning and restoring Victorian era tombstones.
“This whole section here, a year ago, was empty,” said Culliton, pointing to a large plot of land known as the ‘old cemetery’ grounds. “The monument team worked on these; it was stuff just below the ground we didn’t even know was there.”
The students worked with a contractor at the outset of the project, learning the “lost art” of tombstone restoration. The project started last summer and, since then, the students have uncovered, cleaned and repaired at least 50 historic tombstones.
“They come in all different types of shapes and sizes, and what’s really important to remember is every stone was created with a certain purpose in mind in terms of symbolism, architecture, structural integrity. It’s important to preserve that,” said Kristen Nadal, a third-year Archaeology student who has worked at Woodland for the last two summers.
“They are individual artistic pieces and they belong to the family. You can’t take them off the lot without permission, so descendants have a place to go to, so people can appreciate the artistic value of it and so we can understand a little bit more about what the Victorian era was like.”
Nadal pointed to one tombstone the team worked to restore, noting the engraved clasped hands meant one partner is leading the other to heaven. On another, an open rose in the limestone signified the individual died in the prime of life.
“It (the tombstone) tells us a little bit more about what the time period was like and what the person was like. If it crumbles away, you don’t get that,” Nadal added.
The restoration process is a delicate one, added Kate Schumacher, who recently completed a Thanatology certificate at King’s University College. While it’s important to unearth the monuments, repair broken pieces and re-erect the tombstones, there is a fine line between doing enough and doing too much.
“We see a stone and see what can we do for it. Some stones are in such disrepair that we have to be really careful because they can crumble. And once that stone crumbles, it’s gone. You have to be really careful to do good work, but also not to do any further damage,” Schumacher said.
“You want to clean it but it’s part of history. So you want to scrub just enough – but not too hard. Each stone is unique and true to its story. You just don’t get that with the modern stones today, not to same extent. And now, we can see the stories and it’s preserving history a little bit. It’s been rewarding to be part of that process.”
When the team was working on the veterans’ section of the cemetery, individuals who walked through thanked the students for their work. Others have come through to thank them for cleaning up a family plot. They’ve enjoyed seeing the project resonate with members in the community, Schumacher explained.
At the end of the day, the project is about the community and preserving some of its history, added Nadal.
“It’s really important to think about this project as a community project. We’re trying to integrate the cemetery more so into the London community. Back in the Victorian era, people were more comfortable with death. It was more prevalent, people talked about it, they mourned publically,” she said.
“But now, death is kind of a hush-hush subject. We’re trying to make the cemetery a safer spot, an historical spot, a place people can go not only to grieve, but also to connect with their loved ones, the past, to appreciate artistic values. We want it to be a community space.”
For Culliton, the project’s been a win-win. The students gained hands-on, fieldwork experience and the cemetery and community benefited from their work, Culliton said.
“This to me is (Canada Summer Jobs) at its best – it’s what it was designed for. It allowed us to hire the students, to learn and to finance a heritage and recovery project. There’s no way we could afford this; we were very fortunate to get support from the government.”