Canada Die: Old Burying Ground of Halifax

September 14, 2017 — Halifax, Nova Scotia, sounds like the name of a future city on a far-off planet. Even the name of its residents, Haligonians, sounds like the name of an alien race. But this city on Canada’s Atlantic coast has been around since the mid-18th century in a province that saw its first European settlement in 1605.

And when you’re an old city, you get an old burial ground. Simple as that. I feel like I’ve written that sentence more than once on this site.

Like most of the older North American graveyards, this one is small, maybe a quarter of a block in size. It’s wedged right in the middle of the city at the intersection of Spring Garden Road and Barrington Street. Of course, when it was established in 1749—the same year the capitol of Nova Scotia was transferred to Halifax from Annapolis Royal, which was that aforementioned first settlement—it was outside of the city, but the city grew. In 1844, it stopped being an active cemetery and now it enjoys its retirement as an historical site.

We visited on a rainy, bedraggled day. The tops of the table tombs were shiny with water and the greenery was that bright shade of green that happens during rainstorms. The only shelter in the whole place, at least for the living, was the the massive lion-topped triumphal arch that was the last structure erected in the cemetery. That was in 1860, and it memorializes the British victory in the Crimean War. The cemetery is full of that type of history, generals and politicians and whatnot in a timeline that seems almost like an alternate one to me, since I’m only really steeped in my own country’s history. I can only hold so much of the world’s history in me.

Overall the cemetery felt…brown to me. I don’t know if it was the rain darkening the stones or just the sandstone that many of the graves are carved from. It was certainly a different vibe than the slate gray I’m used to in New England cemeteries. But there were was plenty of familiar imagery, skulls and crossbones, winged heads, Masonic symbols. All told, about 12,000 people hold up that ground from below, although it only has about a tenth of that number of headstones. Another hallmark of old cemeteries.

Halifax has a pretty macabre past. The Halifax Explosion of 1917 killed some 2,000 people and was the largest manmade explosion prior to the atomic bomb. Halifax was also the closest port to the spot where the Titanic sank, so the entire city basically became a morgue and a graveyard for the Titanic dead. Both of those tragedies occurred after the Old Burying Ground fossilized into an historic artifact, so those dead are elsewhere in the city.

But if you ever find yourself on that far off planet of Halifax, be sure to visit the Old Burying Ground. It will be there standing its (burying) ground, hemmed in on all sides by modern buildings and streets and cars, holding its precious dead and inviting the living with open gates to walk its paths.