Meet your dead neighbours: Craig Ferguson shares the stories of the ordinary people who to rest in Halifax’s many graveyards

T

he Old Burying Ground, Camp Hill, Mount Olivet, and many more—cemeteries seem to be on every corner in Halifax.

Before he decided to spend his free time documenting them, Craig Ferguson didn’t really like walking through graveyards. “I used to be scared to go into the cemetery,” says the television producer and father of two. “I have a generalized anxiety about death. I think lots of people do.”

But one day shooting scenes in a cemetery for his day job, Ferguson had an aha moment.

“I saw Johnny Power, lost in the woods in the Northwest Arm,” he recalls. “He’s only 13 years old. I just thought, that’s interesting, right? The Northwest Arm must have been a really different place back then.”

Ferguson did a bit of digging. The teenager disappeared into the thick woods after a day of swimming at the Arm in 1911. A team of 500 people, including the Mayor, searched for little Johnny Power, but eventually gave up hope. A hunter found his remains a year later.

Ferguson, who runs the Twitter account @DeadinHalifax, says these are the types of stories lurking behind many gravestones in Halifax. “Stories hit home,” he says. “If it wasn’t for an accident in history you might know these people. These are your neighbours; they’re just dead.”

When he started the account in July 2019, Ferguson began going to a different cemetery about once a week. “In the summertime it’s just nice to spend time in them,” he says.

After visiting and walking around burial sites all across the peninsula, he started to notice a pattern. “You can see the original footprint of the city and you can watch it grow in the history of the cemeteries,” he explains.

Craig Ferguson. Photo: Victoria Walton

The archaeology community has described the area around Pizza Corner as the “Halifax Necropolis,” with the Old Burying Ground, the Poor House cemetery under the old Halifax Memorial Library, the Catholic cemetery under Taz Records, and the Methodist cemetery at St. David’s Church. These are the graveyards from when Halifax was first founded.

“White people show up in 1749, they’ve got dead people on the boats, a long trip. Where are they going to put them? On the edge of town,” says Ferguson.

A few decades after that when Halifax expanded, the graveyards were pushed again to the edge of town, creating Camp Hill. More recent cemeteries like Fairview Lawn and Mount Olivet serve the ever-growing need.

But Ferguson isn’t sure they’ll need to keep expanding at the same rate.

“People are getting cremated more and more often, people aren’t buying into the funeral industry the way they used to. Especially in North America, it’s a very specific custom that comes from a very specific time and place and it might have an expiry date of its own,” he explains.

Ferguson says Camp Hill, which he can bike to on his lunch break for photos, is one of few cemeteries that is also a welcoming public space. “Camp Hill is part of what was called the rural cemetery movement in the mid-19th century,” says Ferguson.

The cemetery houses benches, walking trails, and even recently installed navigational signs that lead the way to Joseph Howe and Viola Desmond’s final resting places.

Ferguson used to be a journalist and still has those sensibilities: he wants to tell the stories of the everyday Haligonians who are buried around town. Although many people know where Alexander Keith’s grave is, they may be less aware of the Rastella Jane Ratseys of the city.

“I think the most glaring thing is the poorhouse cemetery under the library,” he says. “People don’t know that was there. And I think that there’s a real danger of more of that stuff getting paved over. There’s a lot of pressure to redevelop… People think this stuff has already been written down, but most of the stories of the regular people are the ones that haven’t been told. They’re not going to dig up Alexander Keith’s grave and put a condo there. It’s the regular people whose stuff gets lost in these situations.”

That’s part of the reason Ferguson started going to cemeteries in the first place: to try to preserve those little bits of history. He says it’s the closest thing Halifax has to a “municipal museum.”

“If you want to know why Salter Street is called Salter Street and Blowers Street is called Blowers Street, why Binney Street is called Binney Street, all those people are buried in the Old Burying Ground,” he explains. “People relate to stories about other people. And cemeteries are kind of museums for people.”

The real work begins when he gets home from the graveyard visits. Ferguson uses sites like familysearch.org and the Nova Scotia Archives to find details about the names on headstones. “They have a whole lot of stuff available online,” he says. “If I can put the person on a street—they lived on Falkland Street or they lived on Gottingen Street—and [learn] what did they do for a living, I think it all just starts coming to life again… You can imagine it in your head a little bit more.”

Ferguson doesn’t spend money on it, other than buying the occasional book. “What I’m doing, anyone who is curious could do,” he says. “I don’t get any special access.”

His @Deadinhalifax account has built a loyal Twitter following. “I’m in contact now with a lot of local historians, or archaeologists,” he says. “It’s people all over the world doing this.”

And most of those people are concerned about one thing. “You’ll notice that there are lots of graves where nobody’s maintaining them anymore, they’re falling apart,” says Ferguson, and that means some stories may disappear forever. “The easiest people to write about are the wealthy people. They have big monuments, people have written all their biographies. They have people take care of their graves. They don’t forget the cemetery is there and let it grow over.”

Ferguson worries about the threat of development. He believes if people get to know a little more about the cemeteries around them, they’ll be more connected to their city’s history. “The historic cemeteries aren’t just cemeteries anymore, they’re historic sites,” he says. “I think it’s a beautiful gift from the dead to the living if we can preserve a little green space in the middle of the city.”

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