Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Serviceberries, Winter Deaths, & Spring Funerals

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This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is amelanchier_ovalis3.jpeg
Service, or Saskatoon, berries (image from wikipedia)

Hello readers, I am excited to let you all know that I will be starting my PhD at Memorial University of Newfoundland (from Ontario for now because of covid) in Historical Archaeology this week! Now that I am no longer in the field as a CRM (cultural resource management) archaeologist, I am hoping to be able to update this site on my ongoing, and upcoming, research and project. Please join me on this morbid research adventure!

Today I wanted to talk about berries, and their association with death and burial. My friend Katie, a fellow PhD student in folklore, sent me a very interesting article this morning by CBC contributor and chef Andie Bulman on berry harvesting in Newfoundland and Labrador. In the article, Bulman (2020) discusses the history of the serviceberry, also known as the saskatoon berry (which is what I know them as). I was surprised that they have a potential connection to my research on winter funerals!

Serviceberries, a species of the Amelanchier genus, are a leafy shrub or tree that produces delicate white blossoms and dark red to black berries. The name ‘saskatoon’ is derived from the Nehiyawak (Cree) word for the plant, ‘misâskwatômina / ᒥᓵᐢᑲᐧᑑᒥᓇ‘. I’ve personally only encountered these bushes in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia when I worked in the area, and the berries are delightfully sweet. Apparently, the berry became known by this name, ‘serviceberry’, because the plant blossoms early in the spring. This would let settlers in northern locations know that the ground was supposedly thawed enough for graves to be dug to bury those in the community who had died during the long winter (Bulman 2020).

According to the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment (2020), the plant flowers approximately two weeks before the dogwood does in Kentucky. Also known in the area as the ‘sarvis’ berry, based on the Appalachian pronunciation of ‘service’ from the 18th century, the legend states that they were an indicator of when the ground was soft enough to dig graves in the spring.

Marble headstone, 1879, in the snow at Belvedere Roman Catholic Cemetery, St. John’s, Newfoundland.

But is this legend true? In 1972, Dressler wrote that the berry was named service or ‘mountain sarvis’ because of the ‘old custom among Southern Appalachian people where the circuit rider preacher held funeral services each spring for all those persons who had died during the cold winter months‘ (1972:37). The services, held in the spring, aligned with the white blossoms, and eventually became associated with funerals. The Merrium-Webster dictionary indicates that the first documented use of the name was in 1784.

While the connection between a saskatoon berry plant and spring funerals is steeped in legend, it is likely that with the start of the spring and plants awakening and flowering, settlers in the colder climates of North America would have taken these signs of the world warming as a good time to start digging graves for their deceased loved ones. If you are interested in seeing some serviceberry trees in graveyards, Bulman told me that there are several trees in one of the older graveyards in Elliston, Newfoundland, as well as a large cemetery near Memorial Lake in St. John’s (personal communication 2020).

Now what I want to know is, if they had to wait until the spring to dig graves, were they storing the dead in a dead house until the serviceberries bloomed?


Bulman, Andie. 2020. Berry Season is short and sweet, so let’s make the most of the harvest. CBC Newfoundland & Labrador. [website]

Dressler, Muriel Miller. 1972. Mountain Sarvis. Appalachian Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Autum 1972). [accessed Sept 7, 2020).

University of Kentucky. 2020. Downy Serviceberry. College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment. [website]

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

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