How I Became a Tombstone Tourist

Full of history and peaceful surroundings, my local cemetery has become a regular haunt.

St. Columba’s Cemetery in Pembroke, OntarioRobbie Gorr

One of my favourite recreational and photographic destinations is not a plane ride away, a trip across an ocean or a cruise down a distant coast, but is merely a few kilometres drive from my home. St. Columba’s Cemetery in Pembroke, Ontario, is an old cemetery dating back more than 130 years that still remains in use—and it’s one of my regular weekly ports of call.

I began haunting graveyards when I first began to research my own family history. I was always intrigued by the names and carvings, as well as the variety in the styles of the tombstones, and the stories that they told about social history—to the eyes of the keen observer. Then I began to transcribe the inscriptions in area cemeteries—it was an excuse to return to some interesting places and an opportunity to make available to other researchers the kind of information that was useful to me when I began.

For years this particular cemetery in Pembroke held my interest as I conducted my genealogical research and found many ancestors and other relatives interred at this site. I was also part of the local genealogy group that recorded the tombstone inscriptions, even serving as the proofreader and editor of that publication. Later, it became an excellent resource when assisting others with their own family history research, and remains a source of local historical interest, as the tombstones and monuments are a rich resource about the people who settled in this area.

Having now retired from a teaching career that lasted more than three decades, I have found even more reasons to visit this local cemetery. It has become one of my favourite weekly walking locations as I am able to park the car and wander the several kilometres of criss-crossing roadways set in a grid pattern. Most of the lanes are paved, although some are still gravel. I can walk up a gentle rise, past the burial vault and back towards the forest border, weaving my way through the oldest section at the front and into the newer sections of more current burials, passing the recently installed columbaria in their own landscaped section.

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Hand Carved GravestoneRobbie Gorr

Walking through a cemetery is like taking a journey through time and looking back into the history of the area. Every monument and burial site has its own story to tell. I have always been fascinated by the seven-foot-tall cement tombstone handcrafted by a city labourer in 1927 (above), a charming monument in memory of his first wife. I pass the resting places of the priests of the diocese and two local orders of nuns, but always feel compelled to stop and read the names in a border section of the cemetery containing infant burials, once lying outside the original cemetery boundary and used for the interment of the unbaptized. And then there is the grave of a young hockey player, his jersey carved on the back of the tombstone, whose recent tragic death is remembered via trophies, mementoes and even a cup of Tim Horton’s coffee placed by friends and family visiting his grave.

My own ancestors are buried here as well and I always spare a glance and sometimes take a stroll off-road to visit the graves of several great- and great-great-grandparents. They are people that I never knew but through genealogical research and studying our family history, I feel close to them and enjoy the fact that I can spare a few moments to visit. After all, some parts of those people still live on in me, their descendant.

The walk is always quiet and peaceful—you would expect nothing else in a cemetery. Many of the trees are full grown and provide pockets of shade. They also attract all manner of birds, chipmunks, squirrels and insects and so the sounds of nature abound. Morning walks are cool and refreshing in the early sunshine while afternoon strolls can be balmy and lethargic. Evening walks are also tranquil as the shadows lengthen and stretch from the sun lowering behind the tall trees on the western border.

Angel Statuary In CemeteryRobbie Gorr

And while I am walking the lanes in this city of sleepers, I can indulge in yet another hobby—photography. I enjoy taking photos and, in my retirement, now have the leisure to pursue that interest as well. One of my favourite subjects can be found in most cemeteries, for I enjoy taking pictures of the statuary decorating the monuments, especially the angels. I’m not sure why I find angels so intriguing, but some of my best photographs are of the stone representations of those heavenly beings. In fact, I have a framed collection of angel photographs in a hallway of my home, and I recently created my own calendar with my pictures of angels. And this cemetery has some of my favourite angels, which I’ve now photographed from every angle, at every time of day and in every season.

Cemetery Photography AngelRobbie Gorr

I find myself spending time at least once a week in this cemetery. At this point some of you are probably asking, what in the world is he doing in a place like that? But those who have been there know that there is a peace like no other to be found in a cemetery; a calm, unhurried time that can be made especially pleasant by a warm summer morning or a sunny autumn afternoon. Some spots are scenic beyond description, perched on a hill top, framed by a green forest or beside the running waters of a creek.

In Victorian times, cemeteries were often used as parks where couples walked or families picnicked, a tradition we’ve grown away from in this modern age. Why not spend some time yourself at your own local cemetery? You might discover that you, too, are a tombstone tourist.

Check out more Canadian cemeteries worth exploring.

Originally Published in Our Canada