A matter grave of concern

Pam
Pam Frampton
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A sleek black dog leaps gracefully into the air, intent on the green ball his master has thrown on the verdant grounds of the Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.

It is a rare sunny day in May, and the black dog and his canine companion make a rush for the ball as it is thrown again.

A few of the handful of grave markers in the burial ground of the Anglican Cathedral, where more than 5,000 people are laid to rest. Photo by Pam Frampton/The Telegram

A sleek black dog leaps gracefully into the air, intent on the green ball his master has thrown on the verdant grounds of the Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.

It is a rare sunny day in May, and the black dog and his canine companion make a rush for the ball as it is thrown again.

This time it sails through the wrought iron fence and bounces across Duckworth Street. The dogs stop short, then rush after it again once it has been thrown back by a passerby. Their owners stand chatting on the lawn while the dogs bound around them.

Watching from the street below, I wonder if they have any idea of the history beneath their feet.

Or of the people buried there.

Burials 1755

Andrew Browne, child, Feb. 11

John, son of James Shepherd, June 13.

Jane, wife of Thomas Richardson, soldier, Aug. 28

One by one, the end of often all-too-fleeting lives are recorded in sepia ink in the Anglican Cathedral register.

The writing is in an elegant, precise hand that rarely wavers, as if the person recording the names of the dead recognizes the importance of his task; that these names must last so that the people behind them can be remembered.

They are from all walks of life, perhaps having little in common except the fact that they ended their days in St. John's and are about to join hundreds of their fellows in a common grave.

Burials 1757

Eliz. Shepherd's son, who were burnt, April 19

Gilbert Marshall, soldier, smallpox

Ann, wife of John Wyatt, carpenter

On and on, page after page, their names recorded in the same hand, in the same light brown ink.

Few headstones mark this resting place. Few could afford them. Many were wrapped in canvas sail cloth and buried unceremoniously.

"They figure there's 5,000 to 6,000 buried here," says the cathedral's volunteer archivist, Donna Hiscock.

"They're layered one on top of the other."

A brief notation is their only moment of fame.

Burials 1758

Darby Quin, an Irishman

Capt. Darby, man belonged to the Duke of Cornwall, privateer, July 28

Ruben Brooks, Capt. Darby's man, Nov. 17

On this morning at the cathedral, the choir is rehearsing for a funeral that will soon begin. A prominent member of the congregation has died, and upstairs, people are massing in the magnificent Gothic church to remember her. Cars are pulling up outside, discharging sombrely dressed mourners who pause to greet each other on the sidewalk before being ushered into the dark, cool nave.

Outside, in the burial ground, there is only a handful of time-worn markers.

The jagged broken neck of a beer bottle lies at the base of a crumbling monument. A plastic coffee cup lid and an empty condom wrapper litter the ground nearby.

This is the oldest known burial ground in St. John's. No one knows exactly when the first person was laid to rest here.

"I've heard 1720 bandied about," the archivist says.

The written burial records start in 1752 and continue to 1849.

Inside the archives, an old book listing baptisms, marriages and deaths is carefully removed from a vault.

You slip on white cotton gloves to turn the fragile pages.

Burials 1759

Dennis Bryan, a child

Mr. Wm. Long, master mason to the garrisons, June 1

Alex Lawrence from New York, June 22

It is a fascinating glimpse of a long-gone era; a time when soldiers, sailors and privateers walked the streets, a woman was distinguished only by her husband's profession, and a child's life was often short and hard. Small pox. Fires. Invasions. Dysentery. Drowning.

Thousands of people, beneath the ground - the only sign that they lived at all the handwriting of a man who dutifully noted every birth and passing in the burgeoning city.

And at the end of each year, he would write his own name in the register: Edward Langman, minister.

Burials 1760

William Wigmore, naval officer, June 11

Elizabeth Kavanagh, barber's wife

Two years after these names are written, the Rev. Edward Langman performed what must have been his most painful duty: recording the deaths of his own wife and daughter, who died in a wave of "The Flux" - another name for dysentery.

Mrs. Mary Langman, he writes. Wife of Rev. Edward Langman.

Also, Mary. Their daughter.

Reading those words, imagining his grief, you can convince yourself that here his steady penmanship wavers slightly.

He has seen the people he loves the most lowered into the ground, perhaps side by side, with nothing to mark their resting place.

In those days, most people had to content themselves with just knowing where they were.

Nearly 90 years later, in 1849, Langman himself has long departed this life, having died in 1783. The ground is being broken outside the cathedral for the final time. The earth is dug, the body lowered and covered. Prayers are said. The spades are put away.

The burial ground is officially closed.

Three other graveyards were established then, the archivist explains, on the far-flung edges of town - Forest Road, The Boulevard, Waterford Bridge Road.

Today, watching the dogs cavort, it is difficult to fathom how many once-living, breathing people have now turned to dust and bone beneath the grass.

Their formerly quiet resting place is now seen by some as just another greenspace in the downtown core. Hookers are known to frequent the grounds. Some people let their dogs roam here without cleaning up after them. Beers are quaffed, the bottles smashed.

On this afternoon, on the street below the silent graveyard, car horns honk, criminals are whisked out of the courthouse, young people remove their earbuds long enough to greet each other on the sidewalk, or walk briskly by, chatting into cellphones.

Life goes on.

But can't we still respect those whose lives have ended and who lie buried in our midst?

Pam Frampton is the Telegram's story editor. She can be reached by e-mail at pframpton@thetelegram.com. Read her columns online at www.thetelegram.com. Pam has a new food blog at http://wininganddiningwithpam.blogspot.com

Organizations: Anglican Cathedral, Gothic church

Geographic location: St. John's, Duckworth Street, New York Forest Road Waterford Bridge Road

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Recent comments

  • Eugene from Town
    August 26, 2010 - 07:34

    Great piece, Pam. I agree that some respect and recognition of this final resting place for so many is definitely warranted. I climbed the scaffolds that were draped around the cathedral's south walls in 1992 to take some unique vantage photos. The Downtown Development Committee purchased a few of these shots and included them in a piece in The Telegram about plans (shock!) to utilize the graveyard in a bid to "revitalize" this area of Duckworth. Thank goodness sober minds prevailed. We need to honour these people who lived and died through hardships and give a backdrop to all of our easier existences.

  • Ed
    July 27, 2010 - 19:17

    Hi Pam. Great article about the history of St John's and it's people. I certainly agree that we should respect those who lived and died here before us. I really cannot understand or tolerate those who misbehave and damage cemeteries.

  • Polly
    July 02, 2010 - 13:33

    Our death is not an end if we can live on in our children and the younger generation. For they are us, our bodies are only wilted leaves on the tree of life. ~Albert Einstein

  • Polly
    July 01, 2010 - 20:22

    Our death is not an end if we can live on in our children and the younger generation. For they are us, our bodies are only wilted leaves on the tree of life. ~Albert Einstein