Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens


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Holiday Diaries: Exploring the History of Body-Snatching, Burial, & Mourning in Edinburgh, Scotland.

If you follow my social media, you might have gathered a few things recently. Firstly, I just got back from a lovely holiday in Scotland where I explored the morbid and macabre as one such as myself is wont to do, and secondly, I got engaged! So that is all very exciting, but because this is a death blog, I’m going to focus on the former for now.

The majority of my trip was based in the city of Edinburgh. The city is famous for being the home of the Royal Family’s Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh Castle and the Military Tattoo, and of course…Burke and Hare.

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Edinburgh & the Firth of Forth, from Calton Hill (photo by author 2019)

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On the Eighth Day: An Explanation for Octagonal Dead Houses

Hello again, fellow death & burial enthusiasts! My goal with these posts is to share my love of a type of structure that isn’t widely written about (clearly my goal is to change that), and inform you all about a burial practice that was reserved for the colder parts of the world…Canada, parts of the USA, the UK, etc. My research on the practice has been restricted to North America and the British Isles thus far, though it is also clear through readings that winter body storage had to happen in many other places as well (ie. Iceland). I can’t wait to dive in further!

Today I wanted to talk about why some of these structures are octagonal in Ontario, as opposed to a standard rectangular or subterranean structures. There might be a method to this madness!

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The 15th-century octagonal font at Stoke-by-Nayland, Suffolk, UK. (Image by Michael Garlick 2018)

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Catalogue of Octagonal Dead Houses of Ontario: 8th Structures Identified

It is my greatest joy to share the identification of the 8th identified Octagonal Dead House in Ontario with you all! This structure was located and relayed to me by Adam Montgomery, PhD, who runs @CaCemeteryHist on twitter and the Canadian Cemeteries History website. I was so excited to hear about this site, and to add it to my growing database of the structures.

If you’ve missed my previous posts on this topic, please find them HERE and HERE. Those posts cover the use of dead houses historically, and have images of the other structures! They range from ornate stone to simple brick, and are something to behold.

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Burial Against All Odds

Today I’d like to write a short post to tell you all about a few amazing instances of the pursuit of a ‘proper’ burial against all odds. Before starting, I would like to state that this is a proper burial through the lens of primarily white settler communities in the 19th and 20th centuries in what is now Canada. Thanks!

What denotes a good burial? It can be defined by a person’s social status, their religion, their personal beliefs and choices, fads of the time, and a number of other things. A proper, good burial in the medieval period included being close to the altar, in ancient Egypt it meant having belongings with you to help in the afterlife, for southern USA enslaved families it meant being able to bury their dead in peace on their own terms. For settler communities in Newfoundland and mainland Canada, it meant being able to follow their traditional burial practices of  interment, regardless of the conditions.

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A buck at Woodland Cemetery (photo by author 2019)

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Catalogue of Octagonal Dead Houses of Ontario: 5th – 7th Structures Identified

If you’ve been around this website for more than a minute or two, you’ll have noticed that I’m really interested in what settlers did with their dead during the winter. I’ve written about dead houses several times on this blog, talked about them at Death Salon Boston 2018, am currently working on a paper on winter corpse disposal in colonial North America, and shout about them to anyone who listens!

A really interesting form of dead house is the octagonal structures that can be found in Ontario. As far as I know so far, these seven surviving examples (if anyone has one not listed in this post, please let me know!) are the only octagonal dead houses in the province, if not North America. The style was extremely localized to Toronto, and north of the City around Yonge Street.

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Richmond Hill Dead House (photo by author 2018)

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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!
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