OTTAWA — The poppies pinned to lapels on Remembrance Day stand for the bright red flower that once blew between the crosses marking millions of war graves in Europe.
But for as many as 30,000 soldiers buried in Canada, no one knows where their poppies blow.
They are the dead whose graves are unmarked.
“Doesn’t just that make you want to scream?” said Lee MacLean, the daughter of two Second World War vets who is working to identify anonymous veterans’ graves in her southern Ontario community of Haliburton County.
“It makes me want to scream because they went off to war as kids and gave their all for what we have and no one has taken it upon themselves to make sure they are remembered by a marker? That is just unconscionable to me.”
Some veterans lie in cemeteries that themselves are all but forgotten. Others have been found buried in Canada’s national cemetery in Ottawa.
There’s no single reason for the unmarked graves. Some once had memorials, perhaps simple wooden crosses that merely disintegrated over time.
Other veterans may have had no money for a marker, said Jean-Pierre Goyer, the executive director of the Last Post Fund, a not-for-profit that runs the federal government’s burial and funeral program for veterans.
“Or the headstones with time, got used up, couldn’t be read anymore,” Goyer said.
“The cemeteries just picked them up and threw them away.”
Over the last 15 years, the Last Post Fund has sought to place a formal marker on as many graves as it can. It says that to date, over 3,000 have been marked at a cost of just under $2 million.
Cemetery records often list the fact that there is a veteran buried in the grounds, but no one has come forward to fill out the paperwork for a stone, Goyer said.
Those who seek a proper monument can simply call the fund, which will do the leg work to confirm the grave belongs to a veteran.
The total number of unmarked graves is only an estimate. The Last Post Fund says the number comes from Veterans Affairs, based on service and cemetery records.
The department said they’re actually not aware of the location of all unmarked graves, but noted that if a veteran is buried with financial assistance from government, they automatically get a marker.
“It is important to note that in many other cases it is the veteran’s family or estate providing for the burial of the veteran,” said department spokeswoman Janice Summerby in an e-mail.
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“In some of these instances, the family may not immediately mark the veteran’s grave.”
The unmarked graves are believed to include somewhere between 40 or 50 graves in Beechwood, Canada’s national cemetery.
The 64-hectare property has been a burial ground in Ottawa since 1873 and the number of unmarked veterans’ graves there could seem insignificant were it not for the irony that just metres away is Canada’s official military cemetery.
There, row upon row of matching granite markers denote the graves of over 5,000 servicemen and women.
The grounds were became the official national military cemetery in 2001, though soldiers have been interred there at the government’s expense since the turn of the 20th century.
Altogether, there’s room for an estimated 12,000 veterans to eventually be buried in the designated military sections, which make up about 10 per cent of the entire Beechwood property.
Their clean and simple military markers are a contrast to the mosaic of granite and marble monuments at Beechwood which tell brief stories of everyone from 19th century businessmen to children who lived only a few days.
But about 10 to 15 per cent of the total graves scattered throughout the cemetery are unmarked, said Roger Boult, the cemetery’s executive director.
He said the government has done a good job at marking spaces belonging to veterans, once it finds out they are there.
“Everyone deserves, especially a soldier, to have their final resting place marked,” he said.
Today’s soldiers have the option of pre-purchasing a plot in the newest military section of the cemetery, which is run by the Canadian Forces.
In order to keep a certain aesthetic in the cemetery, the headstones go up in advance. When the soldier dies, the dates of their birth and death are transcribed on the stone.
“The military, on a practical note, is by definition a very transient organization; we bounce from posting to posting,” said Chief Warrant Officer Dan Bradley, who manages the Canadian Forces section.
“It certainly gives a home . . . where they can be laid to rest, if they so choose, with men and women who had similar dedication and thought to their country.”