In early Canadian settler communities, the infant mortality rate was very high making death a more prominent part of their daily lives. In addition, the families were larger making each child death that much harder for parents. As expressed through detailed poems and careful words chosen from the epithets, one can see love and grief was real and powerful as illustrated through the detail, poems, and careful words chosen for the gravestones of infants in the 19th century. In this post, we will explore a bit more about how 19th-century settlers portrayed the death of their children through grave markers, and the types of sculpture that was popular throughout the period. During my work in historic burial grounds in Ontario, I have come across many infant gravestones, both upright and buried below the surface.
For settlers unfamiliar with the landscape and dealing with unsanitary conditions, especially in the summer, the deaths were numerous. For every burial of a child whose family could afford a gravestone, there were many more infants buried to those who could not afford such a luxury in the death. A study by Barkin and Gentles (1990) of over 24,000 buried from the City of Toronto showed that like many 19th century settlements, Toronto’s high mortality rate was slowly declining throughout the century. But within this decline, still, over 40% of the deaths were infants under 1 year of age. It is suspected that the high rate of infant mortality in the region was likely due to poor nutrition, sanitation, and illness (Barkin and Gentles 1990: 19). Many of these children were buried in unmarked potter’s fields, a place for the burial of poor people, or unknown or unclaimed bodies, while many more were buried in the famous Toronto Necropolis. In their study, Herring et al. (1991) concluded that of the 521 exhumed bodies from St. Thomas’ churchyard in Belleville, Ontario, 286 were children, and 148 of those children were under 1 year of age. Most telling, their investigation of the burial record showed that there were more identified infants through archaeological investigation than were actually recorded, potentially because they were thought of as “less important than the deaths of older individuals” or that the death of infants was so common (Herring et al 1991: 64).
Whether those graves are marked by towering sculptures or small mementos, the commemoration of infants is something that draws the eye of visitors to historic burial grounds today. Each one embodies the love and affection of the family who had to say goodbye.
The most common gravestone image for children is that of a lamb, typically sitting on the ground with its head up and looking forward or resting on the ground. This harkens to the ‘lamb of god’ imagery, and isn’t exclusively used for children’s gravestones, but it is extremely rare to see it on an adult’s stone. One of the most spectacular examples of lambs I’ve ever seen were carved by J.R. Peel, father to the famous Canadian painter Paul Peel. The stone took the form of two lambs, sitting and curled around one another, with the infant’s name carved on their collective backs. The care put into the design and carving of the stone displayed tenderness and are a joy to behold. The lamb is a symbol of tenderness and innocence, as well as having religious connotations. Delicate imagery shows the love that mourning parents had for their children, even when mortality rates were high, and families had many children. The loss of a life, a life that you brought into the world, is no less devastating even when surrounded by family.
Flowers are also a common motif on children or infants’ graves, such as roses, blue bells, or other varieties. Sometimes, the stems are broken, showing that their life was cut short, but sometimes the flowers are simply placed there as a motif. Doves also appear on the graves of children, likely representing the soul. They could be alone, or accompanied by plants, or other imagery. Rare designs on children’s graves include figures such as a mourning mother, a cradle or bassinet, and in one instance at Brick Street Cemetery in London, Ontario, a mourning husband and wife standing over a bassinet. That stone in particular, dedicated to Hugh McLaren, was carved around the 1830s in London by a carver named Capron, whose work fills the burial ground. The scene is particularly moving, as it features both parents. This is rare to see on gravestones, which usually only feature female figures as images of sorrow or faith.
Much of my familiarity with infant gravestones comes from working and researching in cemeteries and burial grounds across Canada. This past summer (2019) I worked at Woodland Cemetery as a gravestone conservator. Myself and my colleague uncovered a number of buried gravestones over the course of the summer. The overwhelming majority of the buried stones we found were for infants or small children. It was surprising, the number of stones for young people that had been broken and left to sink into the ground, and the number of the times we pulled back the sod to reveal a tiny marble lamb, we sat back with a sigh. Another baby. Another forgotten grave to a child who died too early and was often buried with other infants from their family, siblings whom they would never meet.
Archaeologists have been conducting work on infant/children burials filling a necessary gap because children have often been ignored in the field – considered to exist on the periphery of the study (Kamp 2001; Lillehammer 2010). This is necessary for our understanding of humanity, and societal growth, as archaeological and historical studies typically examine the ‘average’ human…which has, throughout history thus far, been the adult (often white) male. To study children, their lives and deaths, is to understand the development of play, childhood, and development within a society. How those children were represented by their gravestones after death is simply another piece of the puzzle.
Infant mortality is directly linked to motherhood mortality in that there were many mothers who died in childbirth and their lives were reduced to whom they married, number of children, and often their gravestones did not even include their own maiden names. For example, a young woman named Silvany Barnes was buried at Brick Street Cemetery after a difficult and short life. Married at only 16 years old to Richard Tunks, veteran of both War of 1812 and the Napoleonic Wars, she suddenly found herself the mother of 12 children. Silvany was friends with some of Richard’s children, which was likely how they two met. Silvany Barnes went on to have six more children before dying in childbirth at age 31. Her gravestone does not say her maiden name, but a line at the bottom reads Much Lamented by her Children. She was clearly a strong woman in a period of history when women didn’t have many options.
Historic burial grounds are filled with the graves of infants, children, and women, whose gravestones are often our first glimpse into what their lives would have been like. Even more so, graves beneath our feet that go unmarked are filled with individuals who could not afford commemoration. High mortality rates in infants is something that we associate with centuries passed, but today, high mortality rates in infants and children remains a major issue in northern Canada and on First Nations reservations. This is something that should be addressed by the government of Canada, and not ignored. No matter the time period, or frequency, the death of a child is a tragedy, and the care and compassion put towards their funeral and burial is something we see reflected in the archaeological record through their gravestones.
Barkin, Risa and Gentles, Ian. 1990 Death in Victorian Toronto, 1850-1899. Urban History Review / Revue d’histoire urbaine, 19 (1), 14-29. Available online: https://www.erudit.org/fr/revues/uhr/1990-v19-n1-uhr0756/1017575ar.pdf
Herring, Ann, Saunders, Shelley, and Gerry Boyce. 1991 Bones and Burial Registers: Infant Mortality in a 19th-Century Cemetery from Upper Canada. Northeast Historical Archaeology, Vol. 20, Article 6. Available online: https://orb.binghamton.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1228&context=neha
Kamp, Kathryn A. 2001 Where Have All the Children Gone?: The Archaeology of Childhood. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, March 2001, Vol. 1, Issue 1. Pp. 1-34. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1009562531188
Lillehammer, Grete. 2010 Archaeology of Children / Arqueologia de la infancia. Complutum: Infancia Y Cultura Material En Arqueologia. Vol. 21, No. 2, 2010.