Cemeteries: Cities of the Dead
One of the most essential parts of ancestor and spirit work is understanding cemeteries and graveyards. Even if your ancestors didn’t use them, they can still teach you a lot about working spirits of the dead and all the other spirits that reside in them.
Gravestones are a valuable source of information, with inscriptions, floral arrangements, and the type of stone used to construct them all providing essential details. These markers contain a wealth of knowledge that can be used for research and rituals.
Case Study: Goodchild Family Monument
This gravestone was originally erected for my 3rd great-grandfather, Charles Goodchild, but is also the gravestone for other family members too. Charles has graciously allowed us to use it as an example for this case study.
1. Design and Size:
This gravestone is in an obelisk shape, which represents a connection between heaven and earth. In the Victorian era, obelisks were often used as the focal point of a family plot.
Though this gravestone is smaller than others in the immediate area, it isn’t tiny. Since it was likely erected in 1899 or 1900, and the cemetery only opened in 1890, it would’ve been one of the more prominent structures in this section.
What does the obelisk say to me? Since I know this side of my family was extremely poor, choosing something that could be used for multiple family members was a deliberate choice. And because this design would’ve been out of their budget, they had help paying for it.
While I am not yet 100% certain, I believe this gravestone is made of limestone. Limestone was popular until 1900 because it was easy to source and carve. Unfortunately, limestone is the ideal home for lichen, which causes damage. The metaphysical properties of limestone are protection, grounding and healing.
This gravestone is not in the worst shape, but it's not in the best shape either. The extreme weather changes in Toronto have taken a toll, and the lichen has also done significant damage. The inscriptions are slowly being worn away and are difficult to read. It appears the base had been broken and repaired at some point.
The fact that it has been repaired means there was someone who took care of the plot, but clearly since stopped (probably when they died).
The first inscription is for Charles, and it reads
Killed by Accident
At Murray Hill
November 15th 1898
Aged 63 Years
This inscription has a wealth of information I can use.
When I searched Charles' name, the date and location, I discovered news articles regarding a train disaster that resulted in the deaths of twelve individuals. It was a crash which could have been prevented. Why is this important? It gives me a clue about who may have paid for the gravestone: the railroad company (though this is currently unconfirmed).
The railroad did pay for the coffin, so it's not a stretch to think they may have paid for the gravestone and plot. I also see a lawsuit in 1899 brought forth by my ancestors against the company, so it may have been part of the settlement.
Charles’ age is also important. If he was 63 years old, he was likely born in 1835. However, birthdays and reported ages were notoriously unreliable until the mid-1900s, so I would include 1834 and 1836 in my search when looking through birth and baptism records.
5. Neighbouring Gravestones:
Not only did I find other inscriptions on this gravestone that might give me more information about my family history, the names Goodchild, Wise, and Campbell are on the nearby gravestones, meaning some more of my ancestors might be buried in this section. I can use this information to expand my family tree and learn more about my lineage.
6. Plants of the Dead:
Cemeteries aren’t just homes for spirits; tons of plants (and animals) reside in them, which can be valuable for research and rituals.
Charles's gravestone has no plants or flowers (other than the lichen), which means it either never had any, or it's been years since anyone planted anything. However, because Prospect Cemetery has over two hundred types of trees and shrubs, I can utilize the ones growing nearby. Please note that I am referring the the trees that are part of the cemetery landscape, not the ones planted at other graves.
As you can see, by analyzing the various elements of gravestones, one can uncover a range of fascinating facts and insights into the lives of ancestors.
The Book of Ancestors has a massive chapter devoted entirely to cemeteries, so don’t forget to preorder your copy! And because cemeteries are also great locations for communicating with spirits, check out The Book of Seances too!