Old Burying Ground, Halifax Historical Treasure

Old Burying Ground, Halifax Historical Treasure

Despite my status as a horror writer, I had no intention of visiting Halifax’s Old Burying Ground during our visit in October 2022. But since we only had one brilliantly sunny day during our trip, it should go without saying that we wanted to spend time outside. We’d been thinking about the Camp Hill Cemetery since it was only a block away from our hotel–but our tour guide for the Peggy’s Cove bus trip insisted the Old Burying Ground was a can’t-miss. I understand why–the Old Burying Ground was Halifax’s first graveyard, established in 1749, while Camp Hill was launched in 1844.

Halifax cemeteries are fascinating, even Camp Hill. During my first visit to Halifax years ago, a short jaunt to Lawnview Cemetery brought me face-to-face with Titanic victim graves. But the Old Burying Ground really was worth a visit–and not just because the place is crazy with corpses. 12,000 people buried at the site, with only 1,300 marked with headstones, my favorite of which is that of British Major General Robert Ross. His headstone isn’t ornate or beautiful, but as the guy who burned the White House during the War of 1812 (among his several victories), it felt appropriate to seek out his grave. I mean, hey, history, right? The bus tour guide was a born and raised Haligonian, so it’s tempting to think this was her way of telling us what she really thinks of Americans. To be fair, I don’t blame her–considering all the fascist white supremacist Nazis seeking office and trying to assassinate our elected officials, well… we deserve the ridicule.

But the guide was very focused on the history of Halifax itself, and the Old Burying Ground is a special place, as much for its unmarked graves as well as its headstones–which serve as a time capsule of popular marker styles and design. The marker carvings are incredibly interesting and quite personal in some cases. There are even projects on-going to survey and map the entire cemetery. But as I said, the unmarked graves are interesting–take, for instance, Mi’kmaw Chief Francis [Muis/ Muice], who died 16 February 1781 and was interred in unmarked grave. Or the 167 recorded Black people buried unmarked in the graveyard, some of whom are Black Loyalists evacuated from New York.

Halifax does a pretty good job of acknowledging their history of living on unceded Mi’kmaw lands, but there was less information available about Black Haligonians (although I understand Canada in general has done less than a stellar job of handling violence against indigenous people). Maybe there’s simply less history there than there is in the U.S. (the long record of brutal U.S. slavery and the racism that’s baked into our history even currently, despite what some would have us believe)–although in looking it up, there’s quite a record of Black Nova Scotians organizing for civil rights and addressing past harms (another reason I might have liked to visit the Camp Hill Cemetery since civil and women’s rights activist Viola Desmond is buried there).

I know that visiting graveyards gets a bad rap often–relegated to dark tourism that appeals to ghost hunters–but certainly it’s an excellent way to understand local history.

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