Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Winter Corpses: What to do with Dead Bodies in colonial Canada



Dead house in Nain, Labrador (Jarvis 1995. From the Memorial University of Newfoundland-Intangible Cultural Heritage Inventory

Welcome back, dear readers, to another installment of a blog about burial practices and archaeology! Today I’d like to talk about something that is close to by heart (as the result of arguing about it during my thesis): What did people do with their dead bodies during the winter, in colonial Canada?! Well, there are a few options to discuss but the short answer is…

Keep them.

My first introduction to this particular subject of death studies was during my thesis research and fieldwork. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, throughout my entire MA people asked me repeatedly if the dead bodies at Ferryland had been buried at sea. I’ve laid out why this was very likely not the case HERE, but as a brief recap, there were a lot of rules for burial at sea in the 17th century, one of the most important of which was that it was reserved for sailors, which most of the settlers at Ferryland were not. But they what were they doing with their dead? The most likely option is that the kept them! The only records we have of deaths at Ferryland in the early years is of 9 or 10 people dying in the winter of 1628/1629, which means the ground would have been extremely difficult to dig into (if you’re familiar with the Rock you’ll know why), and that short of setting fires to thaw the ground, which people have done, the next best option is to keep the bodies until the spring thaws the ground for you. In the 17th century, Ferryland had a lot of warehouses, some sheds, and horse barn, all of which would have been unheated and excellent options for some cold-weather body storage.

In the novel Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, Kent describes a common scene from 19th century Iceland where a family member died in their bed during the winter, and the body was taken to the barn to be kept in the cold where it would not decay before spring , when the ground was softer and a grave could be dug. This practice was utilized across frozen countries for hundreds of years, and Canada was no exception.

Fast forward a few hundred years, and we begin to see structural evidence of purpose-built structures for the storage of dead bodies, the Dead House. Also called a Mort house, Corpse-House, or Charnel House, the typical function for the building was to temporarily store dead bodies until the time of their burial. Prior to the mechanized grave-digging and mortuary refrigeration, this often meant providing a place to keep the deceased until the ground thawed enough to dig the graves by hand. Dead houses were most often built near or on the burial ground, or between the burial ground and the church. This happened in many different parts of what in now Canada, in Newfoundland, Labrador, Ontario, and many more areas that I haven’t done research on yet…but will soon!

This post is meant to be a little round-up of information I have so far, so I’m not going to go into the whole history of the Dead House in European culture here (though I’ll be mentioning that when I speak on this topic at Death Salon Boston 2018!). What I would like to do however, is talk about a few really interesting examples of dead houses in Canada, and how the practice has evolved today.


A dead house in Hopedale, Labrador. (Jarvis 1995. From the Memorial University of Newfoundland-Intangible Cultural Heritage Inventory)

One cannot start a discussion on Canadian dead houses without giving a mention to the Moravian Missionaries in Labrador. Dale Jarvis (2001:65) wrote a wonderful paper on the folklore and history of surviving Moravian dead houses, where he quotes that aside from being sturdy, plain buildings that could easily be overlooked today, and frequently are, that the structures were ‘to hold the body until we have a service, while they are digging the grave, or that kind of thing, although that would already be in a coffin by then, by this time.’ The dead house was very much linked to the beliefs of the Moravians, who buried their dead often within 24 hours of death, and the structure itself acted as a liminal space between life and death within their faith. The dead did not have access to the church as did in life, so the dead house was a place to hold them between the living church congregation and the ground they were about to share with the rest of the community’s dead (Jarvis 2001).

Some of the dead houses in Labrador are still standing today in the towns of Nain, Hopedale, and Herbron, although they have been re-purposed into storage sheds among other uses. It is amazing to think that these structures, built in the 19th century to shelter dead bodies, have survived for so long!

Dead House 1

The Gothic Revival dead house at St. Michael’s Cemetery, Toronto. (Vega 2010)

The use of dead houses in Moravian funeral practices is pretty unique, as a more ubiquitous use for the structures was actually to store the bodies over the winter. While in Scotland, Mort Safes, Mort houses, and family vigils in burial grounds were a means of letting the bodies decompose enough that they were of no value to body snatchers (see the Undy Mort House), the more common use of the structures in Canada was provide a safe, unheated structure to store the dead until the spring, to present their bodies from badly decomposing before the graves could be dug in the thawed ground in the spring.

So far, most of the surviving dead houses I’ve been able to find information on are all in Ontario (so I’ll be visiting them as soon as my partner arrives with the car!). Many take on an octagonal shape, as the result of a fad in octagonal structures that appears in America during the 19th century (Canada’s Historic Places 2008). According to the register, there are 5 surviving octagonal dead houses in Ontario alone, built between  1855 and 1887.

Dead House 2 aurora

The Aurora dead house, constructed in 1868 (Canada’s Historic Places 2008)

The St. Michael’s Catholic Cemetery’s Dead House was designed by Joseph Sheard and constructed in 1855, in a Gothic Revival style (Vega 2010). It is an amazing example of a large-scale dead house built for a growing city. It is by far the most elaborate of the octagonal dead houses, and the later examples mimic the style.

In 1868, the dead house in Aurora, Ontario was constructed by H. Harris from brick with a stucco exterior (Canada’s Historic Places 2008). The structure has a gothic pointed doorway, no windows, and is located within the grounds of the Aurora Cemetery. While this building is much simpler than the Toronto example it shares many of the same elements such as the small cupola on the roof.

Built in 1863 and now used for general storage, the dead house in Richmond Hill, is another surviving example of an octagonal dead house in southwestern Ontario (Waymarking 2009). The building shows more decoration than the Aurora example, with brick quoins on each corner of the structure, again the gothic style pointed arch on the doorway, and the ornate cupola on the roof. Like the previous two examples, this one is located within its associated burial ground.

Lastly, the King City dead house was constructed for the King City Cemetery Board in 1887 by William J. Irwin, and is a designated heritage property under the Ontario Heritage Act (Township of King 2002). This later example is simpler than the pre-1865 examples, but still retains the same Gothic Revival style. Again, it is located in the burial ground.

I was only able to track down 4 of the apparent 5 surviving dead houses of this style in Ontario, so if anyone knows where the 5th one is, send me a message!

One thing I find particularly interesting is that the dead houses are located in the burial grounds, rather than off-site or near the church or another public space. It indicates that perhaps the funeral procession preceded in the winter as it would in any other time of the year, but halted short of the actual burial and placed the body in the dead house instead. In this way, the 19th-century dead houses of Ontario act as a liminal space as well, a symbolic ‘burying’ of the individual in the means available at that moment. In the spring when the ground was thawed enough to dig a grave, bodies kept through the winter in the dead houses would be buried ‘again’.

Today, thanks to modern refrigeration in most mortuaries, dead houses have fallen out of fashion and the historic structures are re-purposed for storage, their interior shelving holding boxes and tools rather than frozen coffins and corpses. However, in some communities in Newfoundland, structures residing adjacent to burial grounds are still used to store the deceased until winter is over and the family is notified that the ground is soft enough for grave-digging and the funeral can commence. It’s so interesting to see this age old practice continuing in lieu of using tons of power to keep the bodies cold or to dig a grave through frozen ground..simply let the weather keep everything frozen until the spring!

In conclusion, I’m still working on identifying additional dead houses in Canada and am hoping to have a little more information on their development from the 17th – 21st century by the time of my potential talk on the subject! My closing words: It is clear that the practice of storing dead bodies before burial has a long history in Europe and Canada, making it even more likely that the settlers at Ferryland did exactly that too.


Work Cited

Canada’s Historic Places. 2008. The Dead House, Aurora. Historic Places. Available at:

Jarvis, D.G. 2001. The Moravian Dead Houses of Labrador, Canada. Communal Societies, Volume twenty-one. Pp. 61-78. Communal Studies Association.

Township of King. 2002. King City Octagonal Dead House. Historic Plaque. Image available here:

Vega, P. 2010. St. Michael’s Cemetery. Heritage Toronto: People, Places, Events. Posted online 2013. Available at:

Waymarking. 2009. Richmond Hill Octagonal Deadhouse. Available at:




Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

12 thoughts on “Winter Corpses: What to do with Dead Bodies in colonial Canada

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  10. Yes I remember asking my mother this question. What did rural families do with a relative that died during the winter? They would place the deceased in a casket and have the funeral in the house or church if close by, and then the casket would be stored in the hayloft in the barn until the ground would thaw, then taken to the cemetery to be interred.


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