Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Curious Canadian Cemeteries: Union Cemetery, Calgary, Alberta

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We’re heading back west for this week’s Curious Canadian Cemeteries installment (ok I know its been a few weeks, but there is work to do and papers to write!), lets take a look at the famous (and rather large) Union Cemetery in Calgary, Alberta.


Funeral procession at Union Cemetery, Calgary, 1911. (Glenbow Archives, NA-2315-6)

Union Cemetery is located southeast of downtown in the City of Calgary, close to the south banks of the Elbow River. It is located on a small hill, as is typical of early burial grounds in Canada. This location ultimately saved the site during the floods in 2013. I was doing my undergrad at the University of Calgary at the time, and remember being very concerned about the burials.

In 1884, Calgary was incorporated as a town of approximately 1000 people, having expanded from Fort Calgary into a bustling settlement. The town’s only burial site was a Roman Catholic burial ground which was both too small, and too Roman Catholic for much of the population, and it was resolved that a new, Protestant burial ground would be opened. After a failed attempt to open a burial ground at Shaganappi Point, Union Cemetery was established in 1890 to meet the needs of the growing settlement and their expanding dead. (City of Calgary 2018).


Section of 1929 Map of Calgary, showing the Union Cemetery in the bottom centre. (Calgary Drafting Company Ltd. 1929)

Currently covering 47.2 acres of land, the Union Cemetery was established as civic space. Deliberately designed like many late 19th-century cemeteries, the site is sprawling and park-like, with many large, spread out monuments displaying many different examples of Victorian symbolism of death and dying. A large Classical Revival archway was designed in 1912 to span the main entrance to the site, however it was later moved to the rock garden area, where it can still be viewed today (UCalgary NDa).

A significant aspect of the site is the large Chinese burial ground, which opened in 1908. Within that portion of the site are 39 unidentified skeletons, belonging to Chinese settlers who moved into Alberta after the construction of the railway was completed. Their unmarked graves were uncovered during the widening of Macleod Trail, and their reburial location is marked by the Calgary Chinese Memorial Monument today, honouring them and the early multi-cultural origins of Calgary as a settlement (Barry 2016)

1934_Glenbow_Na-4099-2_mortuary and chapel in the background

Union Cemetery with the Chapel / Mortuary in the background, 1934. (Glenbow Archives NA-4099-2)

The aspect of the cemetery that I personally find the most interesting is, of course, the dual purpose Chapel / Mortuary (though morgue might be a more accurate term, but that’s just me mincing terms over here). Situated in the middle of the cemetery a sandstone-like cast concrete masonry unit Chapel and Mortuary was constructed in 1908 and acted as both the location of services and a winter storage facility (or dead house!) (UCalgary NDb). After services, the coffin or casket could be lowered from the upper chapel level down to the mortuary level, where it could be stored during the winter, prior to machinery. This structure is no longer used for services, and has long since lost its pews, but personal communications with historians in Calgary have let me know that the shelves which once held coffins in the sub-surface mortuary are still in situ. I would love to see them one day!!


The Chapel, 2014 (CBC 2014)

At the south end of the cemetery is a Potter’s Field, where individuals who could not afford to pay for a funeral or a plot were buried, unceremoniously in unmarked graves. Estimations tell us that over 1000 individuals are buried there, along with a few executed criminals (Guilbert 2015). There are some records of these individuals, however most entries in the burial record list only ‘Nameless Man’, as many died anonymously. Potter’s Field is located near section R of the cemetery.

As with most burial grounds, the monuments at Union Cemetery are extreme impressive! From massive to tiny, granite to wood and metal, there are grave markers to reflect all walks of life. I used Union Cemetery as a preliminary site for my erosion project, and thought I still had photos from that saved somewhere…but apparently not!

If you are in Calgary at any point soon, definitely take a trip down to Union Cemetery and wander around for a while! It’s an amazing site (conveniently located really close to the Stampede Grounds), and the City of Calgary runs free guided walking tours of the site, as well as two other historic burial grounds from May til October! If you’re interested, there is more information on that HERE.

Thanks for reading!


Works cited:

Barry. 2016. Union Cemetery and Chinese Cemetery – Calgary, Alberta. Hiking with Barry, Wilderness Adventure. Available at:

CBC. 2014. Police investigate arson in Chapel at Union Cemetery. CBC Calgary, 2014. Available at:

City of Calgary. 2018. Union Cemetery History. The City of Calgary website. Available at:

Guilbert, Andrew. 2015. The Story of Union Cemetery and its Residents: From groundbreakers to grave robbers, Union Cemetery has more than a few stories to tell.  Avenue Calgary, Oct 05, 2015. Available at:

UCalgary. NDa. A short history of Calgary’s Union Cemetery. A tour of Union Cemetery. Available at:

UCalgary. NDb. Architecture at Union Cemetery. A tour of Union Cemetery. Available at:


Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

One thought on “Curious Canadian Cemeteries: Union Cemetery, Calgary, Alberta

  1. Pingback: Curious Canadian Cemeteries: The Toronto Necropolis | Spade & the Grave

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