Laurence De Looze knows it might sound macabre. In his experience, however, it’s been nothing but a life-affirming enterprise.
Asking first-year university students to delve into a gravestone project, one that entails in-depth archival research into lives of the dead, proved a poignant opportunity to examine history alongside some of life’s biggest questions, said De Looze, who teaches in Western’s School for Advanced Studies in Arts and Humanities (SASAH).
For the last few years, students in his SASAH Arts & Humanities 1020 course have been assigned a Woodland Cemetery gravestone; they received a photo of a 19th-Century gravesite and a dossier containing basic information about the individual buried there. Students then had to probe archives, city records, burial records and whatever else they can dig up, in order to find out everything they can about the lives of the dead.
This year, Woodland manager Paul Culliton proposed the students work on gravestones which memorialize First World War soldiers who are either buried overseas or missing in action – bodies that never came back, but where families memorialized them.
“It became a great opportunity for them to study questions of loss and grief, and the importance of having a site where people concentrate their grief, even though the body isn’t there,” De Looze said. “One of the commitments of SASAH is getting students out of the classroom into the community with experiential learning. This has been a pretty eye-opening experience for the students.”
Students worked in groups of two and received a folder with information on their soldier from the Canadian Great War Project. They spent time at Woodland with Culliton, as well as hours looking through archives in Western and public libraries. The final product was a portrait of the soldier’s life delivered in whatever way the students thought was appropriate – a video, website, memento box or Facebook page, even.
The final projects were thoughtful and creative, De Looze said, showing the students engaged with the assignment on a deeper level. One project particularly stood out, he noted.
“Two students took the metaphor of putting the pieces of a person’s life together. They made a puzzle with a whole discussion of the soldier’s life, and on the back of each piece are details about him. Each puzzle piece has something about him, some feature of his life – I thought that was pretty extraordinary,” De Looze said.
So impressed with the project, he gave it a grade of 98. While standing in line at the University Community Centre (UCC) grocery store, he was asked by the cashier about the big puzzle he was holding in his hand.
“It’s funny. I was paying and I had this with me. She asked what it is, and I told her, and she said, ‘Well I assume it got 100.’ I said, ‘I actually gave it 98.’ And she said, ‘Oh, no. No. It should be 100. Don’t screw around; it’s worth 100.’”
And just like that, Rose Ghaedi and Alex Busch got a 100 on their puzzle depicting the life of John Labatt Scatcherd.
John Labatt Scatcherd was born in Batavia, New York, in October 1895. At some point prior to 1914, he emigrated to London, Ont., where he enlisted in July 1916. A member of the prominent Labatt family (and a descendant of one of the city’s pioneer families), he served overseas in France and was awarded the Military Cross for bravery in 1917. He was killed in action Sept. 3, 1918.
“Everybody hears about soldiers and how they’re just a number of the people who died in the war. But when you start to uncover who they were, you start to understand their impact more,” Busch said.
“Our solider, when we read things, it was clear he had a strong personality – he was cheerful and optimistic. What happened to him was sad. But other than that emotional aspect, it was interesting the amount of information you could learn about a person based off facts that are completely public knowledge. It tells you so much about them,” Ghaedi added.
“Going to the cemetery was interesting. There is a lot to learn just by going to the physical place. Visiting that cemetery was huge part of the impact of the project. It’s a physical representation of this person.”
With the amount of time dedicated to getting to know their soldiers, the project became an intimate undertaking for the students. De Looze knows the project affected the class. And that’s not a bad thing, he noted.
“They learn an enormous amount. It’s very healthy for them to come to terms with questions of death, grief, the loss of a loved one. This understanding is one of the things they get from the cemetery. On one hand, it’s a sad place and it’s about death. But it’s also about life and it’s about living. The students they seem to find it pretty meaningful. It sounds macabre to start with, but it actually turns out not to be macabre; it turns out to be life-affirming.”