Grave reading is no walk in the park

By Gordon Lambie
Grave reading is no walk in the park

Joan Cruikshank and Leslie Nutbrown share a hobby that could easily be described as being out of the ordinary. Where other people might play a musical instrument or collect rare and interesting curiousities, these two Townshippers have devoted large amounts of their free time over the last ten to fifteen years walking around cemeteries and cataloguing their occupants. Though each has a different reason for undertaking the time-consuming task, both say that the experience of reading through the region’s buried history has had a profound effect on their respective lives.

“It interested me, that’s all,” Cruikshank said, standing amid the stones of Lennoxville’s Malvern Cemetery. “You get a lot of information, dates and relationships off of these stones.”

The grave reader shared that she first became aware of the practice when she decided to look into the history of her father’s family, the Westovers.

“When I retired in 2000 I decided I was going to research my father’s family but I came across a stumbling place,” Cruikshank said. “I couldn’t find a certain person in our line that I was looking for, so I went on the internet and posted a query.”
To her surprise, a woman from Waterloo responded with the suggestion that she look at, a cemetery inventory website based out of Spokane, Washington.

“She was the lady who listed the Westover Cemetery, and I got a wealth of information from that,” Cruikshank said, “so I emailed her and asked how she got about doing this.”
It was not long before she grabbed a pad of paper and a pencil and went to work in the field herself, at first with the help of her cousins, then later with her husband.

Nutbrown shared that he has been researching genealogy since 1970, but didn’t start cataloguing cemeteries until the early 2000s.

“I started to do this one after my granddaughter died in 2002,” he said, looking around the Huntingville Cemetery not far from his home. “She’s buried in here, and I just said I’m going to take a walk around and do everybody and have the record at home. It just spread from there to the next cemetery and all the counties around here.“

Since that start, Nutbrown and his wife have recorded the names in 200 different burial grounds across the counties of the Eastern Townships.

“It’s nice to have these records on my own computer at home,” the genealogist said, “and it’s a good pastime; a good hobby.”

Though both Cruikshank and Nutbrown said that they started out recording information by hand, the amount of work involved has led both to change their approach.

“You need to take down everything on the stones, the names the dates and the relationships.” Cruikshank said. “That took a lot of writing.”

Both now use digital photography as a way of speeding up their work, taking photos of each stone in the cemetery and then using the photos for the digital record later at home. Taking this approach, Nutbrown said, an afternoon’s worth of recording on-site can be accomplished in an hour, leaving the work of writing down all the information for the comfort of home. Even with the assistance of a digital camera, or in Cruikshank’s case a tablet, the work is very physical and time consuming.

“It’s a lot of walking,” Nutbrown said, pointing out that the cemeteries vary a lot in the way they are laid out and are sometimes hilly or not clearly aligned.

“It’s a hobby and a labour of love,” Cruikshank said, pointing out that she and her husband will be buried in Malvern one day. “I used to be terrified of cemeteries, but I find them peaceful now.”
Though the cemetery walkers started their hobby out in the more evident burial grounds of the region, both shared experiences of having made treks into the middle of the woods to look at long-forgotten or abandoned gravesites.

“I had to climb over an electric fence surrounded by cattle in Stanstead County.” Nutbrown recalled. “it was surrounded by a fence in the middle of a field.”

Having experienced some frustrations in working with over the years, Nutbrown now records the cemeteries on his own website: On the site he includes the names of those buried at each site, as well as a description of how to get to the cemetery for anyone who might be interested in visiting.

“It started out as a personal thing, but then I made it available to everyone,” the genealogist said, adding that he recommends people check in with landowners before just walking into a cemetery, as many of the smaller ones are on private land. “If you have to tramp through corn in order to get to it, then probably not many people are going to want to get to it, though.”

“You choose the ones you want to do and you do them.” Cruikshank said.

Reflecting on her experiences, the cemetery walker said that she has been most impacted by the effect her work has had on people who are still alive. As an example she shared the story of a man who contacted her about his wife’s grandfather, Roy Trussler. Trussler was a soldier in the 117th battalion who died in 1969 and was to have received a headstone from the Royal Canadian Legion, but never did due to an oversight.

“He saw where I had listed this gentleman without a stone and he got right onto it,” Cruikshank said. “He contacted the Last Post Fund that provides headstones for the vets, ordered a headstone, and it was erected in September of 2006. (…) That made me feel really, really good. When you come to a block in your own family history and then you come across something like this and you can move past it, it’s a wonderful feeling.”

Despite the positive experiences, Cruikshank says that she has stepped back from walking cemeteries recently because of the time commitment involved. Nutbrown, on the other hand, said that he wants to see the task through to completion on the local level.

“I just want to complete it,” the genealogist said. “I’ve started this, so why not do all the catholic ones and complete all the counties. At this point I’ve probably come across just about everybody who ever lived here.”

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