Grave Transcribing—Urban Archaeology At Its Best
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Grave Transcribing—Urban Archaeology At Its Best

2007_09_07grave.JPGYou’ve traced your roots through to great-grandma Edna back to the early 1900s, but that’s when the trail suddenly goes cold. Who were her parents? And their parents? Has a seemingly futile search left you wanting to beat your pretty head against a brick wall?
If this scenario sounds familiar—or interesting—help is on the way. Before you give up the hunt, make sure you leave no stone unturned (particularly Nana’s headstone!). Information collected from gravestones, like baptismal, burial and census records, can be invaluable for genealogical research.
Given this, the Ontario Genealogical Society (OGS) has been working on a mammoth project to locate and transcribe the province’s gravestones. OGS volunteers are collecting information from 10 million gravestones and other markers located in 5,500 cemeteries across the province, in order to preserve the historical data they contain.
While the OGS has managed to complete 95 percent of the work it started in 1973, many large cemeteries remain to be recorded. For instance, Toronto’s Mount Pleasant cemetery—one of the largest in the province—has yet to be started.
Cabbagetown resident and long time OGS volunteer, David Reed, first joined the OGS’ Toronto Branch in 1989 and helped transcribe the Necropolis cemetery—including the gravestones of Toronto’s first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie and Globe and Mail founder George Brown—an endeavour that took ten years to complete!
Reed and a team of Toronto Branch volunteers are currently working on the 89,000 graves located in St. James cemetery in Cabbagetown. After six years labouring, the hardworking group has managed to transcribe half of the cemetery—but it is clear these urban archaeologists have their work cut out for them.
Working in bi-weekly shifts from April to October, Toronto Branch volunteers work from a record of the cemetery’s plots which provides a sense of who was buried when and where. However, despite having this rough guide with them, stones are often difficult to find or missing entirely.
Surprisingly, the hardest part of the job is not in the transcribing but “finding one that’s deep and digging it the heck out!” Reed says. For this physical hurdle, OGS volunteers depend on a host of tools to help them including heavy duty probes, edgers, spades, and trowels.
Once the gravestone has been found, transcribing presents a completely different challenge. Sometimes stones are located in a dark corner of the cemetery, other times they are broken, covered in moss, or faded entirely. In these cases, the use of brooms and water bottles are helpful for cleaning. Then, magnifying glasses and mirrors aid in deciphering dark or faded lettering.
Looking to find a cemetery publication? So far the OGS’ Toronto branch has published books of transcriptions from seven of the city’s cemeteries. Prices range from $4-38 depending on the size of the book.
Photo by David Reed.