Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

An Inconvenient Corpse: Winter Dead in colonial Canada / Death Salon Boston 2018


Last week I had the utter pleasure of attending and presenting my research at Death Salon Boston, put on by the Order of the Good Death and hosted at Mount Auburn Cemetery. For anyone new to this blog / death and burial studies in general, Mount Auburn Cemetery is significant as the first landscaped rural garden cemetery in North America, opening in 1831 and is still an active cemetery today.

My talk, “An Inconvenient Corpse: Winter Dead in colonial Canada” discussed how  individuals at early colonial settlements dealt with their dead during the winter. It’s just not something we think about that much! I’d like to summarize my talk in this post for everyone who didn’t get to attend the conference (it sold out so quickly), and just some all around thoughts about my experience at Death Salon Boston!

Lets start with the talk:

I started by discussing early colonial settlements that are well known (Jamestown and Plymouth, etc) and those that are less well known (Cupids and Ferryland). A timeline for these sites were Jamestown in 1607, Cupids in 1610, Plymouth in 1620, and Ferryland in 1621. I, as you likely known already, carried out excavations at Ferryland in 2016 and 2017 with a team of volunteers, looking for evidence of the earliest colonial grave shafts at the site. Now, while I was conducting my research in Newfoundland I would be asked the same question by the public and academics alike: “If [I’m] not finding graves on land, could they have been buried at sea?”


Ferryland Harbour. (David Webber, Colony of Avalon Foundation 2001) ((there aren’t any graves there though))

It is an interesting question, but it is very unlikely that early 17th century settlers would have chosen burial at sea over burial on land. Firstly, all we know about the dead in the early 1600s comes from the letter that George Calvert himself wrote to the King of England in 1629, saying that during that winter, about “nyne or ten of them dyed” at the settlement. That’s it though, we don’t know who they were, what they died from, or what was done with their bodies…but we do know they died in the winter. We also know, because two gravestones were recovered from the excavations in the 1990s, that there was a burial landscape created at Ferryland in some capacity in the early 1600s.

Deaths in the winter would have made it almost impossible to bury them at sea. Ferryland is located in a protected harbour, and you would have to sail out into the rough Atlantic sea in order to carry out the service and burials. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer presented prayers for the burial of sailors at sea in special cases, but said that burial on land was the only acceptable way to dispose of a corpse. Most of the settlers at Ferryland weren’t sailors, however!

So they probably weren’t buried at sea, and we have discussed this many other times on this blog! That doesn’t leave too many other options though, for what to do with nine or ten bodies in the dead of a Newfoundland winter. The most likely option is that the bodies were placed in an unheated building such as a warehouse or stable, to be kept until the ground was thawed enough bury them in the spring. In short, they were very likely stored for the winter.


Presenting my research in the Story Chapel (Photo by Dr. Kami Fletcher, 2018, used with permission) ((contact me for citations of photos on slide))

When formal cemeteries began to develop around the more urban areas, they would typically include a ‘receiving tomb’, built to hold the bodies of those who died in winter“(Smart 2011:44). The dead house, the receiving tomb, the corpse house, the mort house. All terms for a building constructed for the specific job of holding bodies until it was time for their burial. This could range from holding them through the winter, or protecting the bodies of the recently deceased from the body snatchers. I won’t go over the history too much, as I have already covered a lot of that on my blog before: HERE

I went on to discuss the octagonal dead houses of Ontario, also previously written about on this blog. Since writing that original post, however, I have visited three out of the four dead houses in Ontario, and they are really large and impressive! Some sources say that the Dead Houses in Ontario were octagonal because it was the ‘most efficient way to store bodies’, which sounds very odd, and others say it is because of the influence of the American writer Orson Squire Fowler (who was also a phrenologist), who wrote a book on the subject call “A Home for all, or, the gravel wall and Octagonal mode of building”. 

But this trend peaked in the 1850s south of the border and applied primarily to residential houses. It is possible that dead houses may be octagonal is the same reason that so many stone fonts in medieval churches were octagonal, as were orthodox Christian baptisteries. The eight-sided fonts recall the eighth day, the first day of resurrection. St. Ambrose explains “the octagon is raised for a sacred purpose, for which the octagonal font is also worthy, for this number 8 aptly sign the sacred baptistery, in which the people are raised to true health restored, by the light of the risen Christ who unlocks the gates of death and raised the dead from the grave” (Reinhold 1952:5). It can be summarized as the number 8 symbolizes a new beginning. While a baptism indicates a new life, an octagonal dead house could indicate the next stage of life, or the Resurrection.

For part of this research, I contacted the manager of the Aurora Cemetery and arranged access to the interior of the Aurora Dead House, constructed in 1868. Inside, we found no shelves or visible storage system, but instead a raised octagonal platform around the edge of the room. This platform might have been used to store the coffins, or as a walkway to access coffins in the centre of the room, either laid on the floor or stacked in a central shelving unit. It was also very interesting to see that the back of the door was covered in metal, likely a way to keep cool air inside the building.


Interior raised platform within the Aurora dead house.

When we visited the King City Dead House (1887), I was surprised to see that it had at one point been used as a caretaker’s cottage. You can see in the photo that a stove flashing was cut through the brick, and later filled back in. There is heat damage to the surrounding bricks as well! Hopefully they weren’t using it as a house when it was also being used as a dead house…or at least, not in the winter. The Richmond Hill Dead House (1863) was also very interesting to see, as the building is more ornate than a few of the others. The exterior walls are build with Flemish bond (just like the Story Chapel at Mount Auburn), which was a complicated and time consuming way to lay bricks, meaning it was more expensive. This tells us that the people who built the structure had a bit of money for it!


Side of the King City dead house, showing relic stove flashing and heat damage to surrounding brick (photo by author)

Although dead houses had their heyday in the late 18th and 19th centuries, the tradition continued in areas without access to machinery into the 20th even the 21st centuries. In the towns of Corner Brook and Stephenville, Newfoundland have small sheds beside their local cemetery where they kept bodies during the winter up until at least the 1990s, while in the town of Greenspond a dead house was never used, but instead the ground was burned using whatever means necessary to melt the frost before digging graves in the winter, even if it took three days to dig and you were burning tires to warm the ground! Locals tell me that ‘The ground is never too frozen to dig a grave.’ In other instances, fishers or sealers who died at sea off the coasts of Labrador would have been preserved in specifically made large boxes of salt to be brought back for burial in Newfoundland and buried later. I was told by a local that you can sometime tell the graves of these people, because they had to be larger to fit the large box with salt.


Quotes from discussion on dead houses and winter burial with Greenspond Historical Society, Feb 2018. Used with permission.

Today, most surviving dead houses in Canada have been torn down or turned into sheds, while some have been preserved as heritage buildings. The photo shows the modern cemetery in the town of St Joachim, Ontario. The arrow is pointing to what looks to be a small shed at the back of the site. When I mentioned this project to a friend from that town, they commented that their cemetery still uses a dead house 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 interiors holding boxes and tools rather than frozen coffins and corpses. However, the practice of dead houses is still in use in Canada, so if you come across an unsuspecting shed on your next cemetery trip north of the 49, you can stop and consider what its purpose might have once been, what is might still be, and if there are any coffins inside waiting for spring.

End of Presentation 

It was really exciting (and terrifying! public speaking is scary!) to be able to discuss this topic with a room full of exactly the people who would be interested in it. I think it went very well, and the minute I got up into the pulpit I felt completely comfortable with the whole situation. Everyone was lovely, and people came up to say hello for the rest of the weekend and continue to ask me questions about historical archaeology and burials, and winter corpse disposal.


The Story Chapel, built in 1898 (photo by author)

Death Salon itself was an amazing event! There was such variety in the topics covered by the speakers, from the significance of autonomously black burial spaces such as Boston’s Mount Auburn (Dr. Kami Fletcher), to psychedelics and death (Alua Arthur), a discussion on the importance of helping everyone have a burial (Sarah Chavez with Peter Stefan), death and children (Nancy Frumer Styron), the problematic language used by doctors to discuss dying with terminal patients (Dr. Jillian Tullis), to sideshows and death with the Lady Aye, with many other talks in there too. The variety reminded me a lot of the Transmortality conference I attended last March in Luxembourg, which was also an interdisciplinary conference. It’s such a wonderful opportunity to meet people outside your own field who study similar topics and really opens up the floor for broader collaborations!

Something I really enjoyed about the whole event is that yes, there were a lot of professionals in the group, especially from the funeral industry, but many attendees were just interested people, students, teachers, etc., who were there because the topic is interesting and perhaps something they wanted to get more involved with themselves. In terms of engaging the public in research from an academic standpoint, conferences and events like Death Salon are a lot more appealing to interested parties than a starkly academic conference will likely ever be. It didn’t hurt that we were speaking in a late C19th chapel either! Before I was invited to speak, I was planning on just attending because it seemed so interesting!


Gardner tomb (photo by Ian Petty)

The weekend also involved some non-sitting-and-listening events, such as guided tours of the cemetery by Mount Auburn’s wonderful volunteers all Friday, through the pouring rain, group lunches with randomly selected table numbers and discussion prompts to get to know your fellow table-mates (death related of course), public lectures before the conference began, and an Edward Gorey themed party in the Biglow Chapel (which I didn’t attend, and regret everything now!). My favourite part of the pre-talk events was definitely rainy-day tours, when our lovely guide pointed out the path that Isabella Stuart Gardner’s grave was on. The minute it stopped raining, I ran back to see it.

It was a wonderful weekend over all, and I can’t believe it’s come and gone so quickly! I’m looking forward to continuing this research and hopefully writing a paper on it shortly. Winter burial is definitely a topic that I think we don’t really consider as much as we should, archaeologically, but is part of the story of burial practices throughout history!

I’d like to thank everyone who helped and contributed to this research, and especially to Death Salon and the Order of the Good Death for having me at the event! I hope we can all meet again soon. 🙂

20180525_154054(special mention: I told Caitlin Doughty that there was a dead squirrel in the Aurora dead house when I was there for fieldwork, which I thought was kind of funny because that meant it was kind of still being used. She asked me about it during the question period to many giggles from the audience, but I didn’t have a photo of it in my presentation. Lucky for all of you, I did actually take a photo of the squirrel!)



Fowler, Orson Squire. 1854. A Home for all, or, the gravel wall and Octagonal mode of building. Fowler and Wells, New York. Available online: 

Reinhold, H.A. 1952. Speaking of Liturgical Architecture. Notre Dame IN: University of Notre Dame, 1952: 5.

Smart, Susan. 2011. A Better Place: Death and Burial in Nineteenth-Century Ontario. Dundurn Press, Toronto.

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

5 thoughts on “An Inconvenient Corpse: Winter Dead in colonial Canada / Death Salon Boston 2018

  1. Great article….some day ask me about the farm house we used to own….with three graves in the basement.


  2. Pingback: This week’s crème de la crème — October 13, 2018 | Genealogy à la carte

  3. Pingback: Baby It’s Cold Outside… – Playing Marbles for Keeps

  4. Pingback: The 5th Octagonal Dead House – Ontario | Spade & the Grave

Leave a Reply to Robyn Lacy Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s