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Unassuming Relevance

by Claude-Jean Harel

- all photos courtesy Claude-Jean Harel

In the world of green spaces, few parcels of land are so rich in complexity and history as those places where our deceased peers are put to rest. I recently encountered a group of students from Robert Usher Collegiate at the Regina Cemetery who had been sent there to carry out a social studies assignment.

Cemeteries are as much places for the living as for the dead. We visit them to remember, to leave flowers, to pay our respects. We look at tombstones, seek peace and quiet, perhaps indulge in a little genealogical research. A lone figure stands quietly by a plot, a couple with binoculars looks inquisitively at the grosbeak feeding on white spruce cones, another couple attempts to locate the gravestone of a relative hopelessly hidden under the snow.

As citizens, we assume that cemeteries pretty much run themselves. We are generally oblivious to the fact that municipal authorities must contend with issues of maintenance, such as perpetual care. The latest trend in cemetery management involves self-sustainability forever - a concept more easily expressed than implemented. With older cemeteries being "filled" to capacity, generating revenue has become an almost impossible task. Especially when it comes to raising protective fences or fixing damaged gravestones. The considerations that cemetery staff must take into account rarely become issues expressed in the public domain. So, diligently, they pick up broken up pieces and try to contact relatives who may be long gone. When all else fails, they may, out of decency, apply a little tender loving care and fix it themselves.

When you visit an older cemetery, you will notice that monuments that will stand the test of time tend to be inconspicuous models, low to the ground and made of granite. You may have seen how wooden monuments eventually disintegrate. Nothing stops the forces of weathering. Marble is better than wood - and certainly beautiful - but a half-inch-deep inscription will all but disappear within 150 years. The same goes for limestone. If you want durability, granite is your stone. A half-inch inscription will remain legible for 800 years, as it will weather at the rate of 1/16 of an inch every 100 years. The Regina cemetery itself is probably the repository of millions of dollars' worth of headstones.

There is a definite understated culture to cemeteries at a number of levels. Take ethnicity. The Chinese area at Regina's Riverside Memorial Park Cemetery is quite revealing about the value which Asian society puts on ancestor worship. The new pagoda monument has to be one of the most architecturally interesting features of any cemetery in the Saskatchewan.

Nearby, a war memorial illustrates the sadness of lives lost in wartime.The monument serves as a reminder of the fragility and value of peace. We have, it seems, an inherent need as a society to give expression to those events that claim lives in circumstances where the outcome or its consequences are unsure. As such, cemeteries help reflect who we really are as a community of humans.

I can only commend the efforts of Eileen Schuster and her band of historical enthusiasts for launching Regina Ethnic Pionneers Cemetery Walking Tour Inc. That initiative led to the publication of a useful self-guided booklet that delves deep into Regina's past. We learn that the Regina Cemetery was delineated in 1884 and that it encompasses 29,000 graves. The booklet provides information on 55 sites and is available at the 4th Avenue and Broad Street entrance.

Eileen will occasionally lead tours of the cemetery, but you can custom design your own using the guide. As you walk and identify those sites, you get a sense of historical perspective unlike anything you will read in a book. I was particularly touched by the story of Clifford Tanouye, a 33-year-old man who was "hospitalized for an emergency operation to remove an obstruction in his respiratory system". He later died suddenly because of a piece of gauze that clogged his trachea.

The anesthetist was charged and he died within a year in a car accident.

Some stories are truly achievements. Take Florent Arnold, born in Alsace, France in 1836. He dropped out of college and enlisted in the army, imbued with a great admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte. "After leaving the army, he led a roving existence, visiting nearly every country in Europe, and spending eight years in South Africa."

He immigrated and settled in Regina in 1880, pursuing a career as a hotelier. Florent is also credited with building the Hotel du Canada in 1888, which was located on the northwest corner of 11th Avenue and Scarth Street. The hotel was known as a great gathering place for the horsemen of the district.

With the self-guided booklet, touring the cemetery will give you an impression of what the city looked like at the end of the 19th Century. Sadly, it will also give you a sense of how Regina's heritage has been lost through building demolition and "progress".

Long after those historical features - tramways, theatres, cricket clubs and opera houses - disappear, the cemetery remains. And one day someone will come and inquire as to the whereabouts of a particular fallen marker, a victim of time, weather and vandalism. The latter being a concern in any cemetery. Elongated, high, pointed or compounded monuments with elegant crosses and statues with weak necks are obvious targets for those who pass through cemeteries with less than noble intentions.

As cities fall victim to the phenomenon of urban sprawl, new cemeteries are established with the intent of enticing area residents to use cemeteries to the full extent of their potential. In accordance with the guiding principles of self-sustainability, it has now become common for individuals to sponsor trees such as green or mountain ash, Japanese tree lilac or scots pine, $200 and up. You may even consider a bench ($750) or a bicycle rack ($900). What better way to honor a relative or friend who has passed on, than to help make his or her place of eternal rest more inviting to those who live on?

Harel owns and operates Great Excursions, a Regina-based travel company specializing in "travel for the hungry mind" and focusing on tours of Western Canada.

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