In 1749, the land at the corners of Spring Garden Road and Barrington Street (then the artillery stockade), was established as a common burial ground, thus becoming the first burial ground in Halifax. The city’s southern wall ran along what is now Salter Street, up behind St Mary’s Basilica – just north of (or across the street from) the cemetery. This nondenominational cemetery became the final resting place for many members of Halifax’s founding families, as well as men from the British army and the Royal Navy who died in the region.
In 1793 the graveyard was granted to St. Paul’s Church (Canada’s oldest Anglican Church). During its 95 years of active service, over 12,000 individuals were buried here although only one thousand (or so) foot and headstones are actually in tact. The burial of individuals in unmarked graves was commonplace among the poor or during periods
of epidemic when production for gravestones could not keep up with the demands of the dying. For the most part, graves are laid out on an east-west axis so that the deceased’s feet point east and head toward the west, hearkening to the Christian belief in the resurrection when the dead rise and face a new day in the next life.
The tombstones were hand carved (many of the stones’ backs still bear chisel marks) on slate that was imported from Massachusetts’ Bay until the American Revolution. Thereafter, local carvers continued the craft using indigenous slate, known as “ironstone” which was of a poorer quality. During the old graveyard’s last twenty years or so of operation, larger and rather plain sandstone gravestones were erected.
Under a tiny death’s head is the cemetery’s oldest marked grave, belonging to two-year old Malachi Salter Jr. who, in 1752, left the embrace of his family for his place on what was then Pleasant Street. General Robert Ross, responsible for the burning of Washington during the War of 1812, found repose here as did Captain Lawrence of the USS Chesapeake (immortalize for his rallying cry “Don’t give up the ship”), although he was later repatriated to the United States.
The graves of the unfamiliar bear poignant witness to the passing and final resting of men, women and children (many infants) who, for the most part, are no longer known to us. Women are designated as “wife of” or “mother of”; the gravestones of children often only bear their names and their exact age at death.
An exception is little Ann Welsh (age 1 year and 3 months) whose passing is recorded with notable tenderness: “alas she is gone and like the spotless dove to encrease (sic) the number of blest above.” In some instances, the manner of death is indicated (two young siblings died from ailments associated with the throat). One of the most intriguing gravestones belongs to James Bossom who “was Willfully Murdered On the Morning of the 8th of August 1839 by Smith D. Clark in the 23rd year of his Age.” One can only hope that Mr. Clark was indeed guilty of the crime which was set in stone for all to read.
In 1844, the Old Burying Ground closed, sending future tenants a few blocks away to the Camp Hill Cemetery. In 1855, the Sebastopol memorial was erected at its entrance, a rare pre-Confederation monument to honour two local men, Major A.F. Welsford and Captain William Parker, both killed in the Crimean War.
In the 1860′s, the Old Burying Ground was landscaped and encircled by the wrought iron fence which, for the most part, stands today.
The future of the Old Burying Ground of Halifax, Nova Scotia was formally secured when it was declared a Municipal Heritage site in 1986, a Provincial Heritage Property in 1988, and a National Historic Site in 1991 – the first graveyard in Canada to receive such a designation.
By Carolyn Theriault in Boots n’ All