While wandering a cemetery, have you ever come across a monument that is shaped and textured to look like a tree? Today, I want to take a closer look at these types of grave markers, called tree stones. Although they are a bit harder to come by in Northern Ontario, you can find them, and they are usually very easy to spot since they are so unique!
Tree stones are often used as memorials for members of the Woodmen of the World, a fraternal organization. This fraternal order was started in 1890, and membership included those who worked in particularly dangerous professions. The organization offered health insurance and death benefits to its members, which included a tree stone tombstone.1
Woodmen of the World tree stones, often bare the Woodmen crest, as well the tools of the trades like an axe and sledgehammer, representing the works of man. You may also find other symbols on tree stones like ivy or doves, representing friendship and peace, respectively.
The severed branches or tree stump of a tree stone, Woodmen of the World or otherwise, often represents a life cut short. We often see this combined with other symbolism, like a lamb or dove laying in front of a stump. Lambs and doves are often found on the graves of small children, symbolizing innocence and purity.
Sometimes the number of logs on a tree stone can be symbolic of the number of children the deceased had. A tree stone can also be seen as a representation of the tree of life, symbolizing knowledge.
Have you ever come across a tree stone? Or maybe a Woodmen of the world memorial? I would love to hear about your finds, in the comments.
Thanks for reading!
Understanding Cemetery Symbols: A Field Guide for Historic Graveyards by Tui Snider
October is coming to an end. This post-pandemic Halloween season has felt a bit more normal because of all the fun spooky activities happening. It’s been a whirlwind of a month for me, between pumpkin patch activities, a haunted holiday, watching way too many horror films, and visiting cemeteries. I even put up my own little front lawn cemetery for the trick-or-treaters on Halloween night.
This year, I was able to visit some cemeteries a little farther away from me, in Cobalt, Haileybury, Huntsville, and Penetanguishene. I am looking forward to sharing more about those visits in upcoming posts. You can read about my visit to the Beck House and the Presbyterian Cemetery here.
I also had a chance to participate in this year’s Cemetery Scavenger hunt, put on by TalkDeath. I wrote a bit about TalkDeath and their annual event last week. You can read it here, in case you missed it. This cemetery scavenger hunt takes place globally, so you can participate from anywhere. All you have to do is visit a local cemetery. In some areas, you can participate with TalkDeath members in person. This year there were members at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal, and General Protestant Cemetery in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
My mother and I joined in from Park Lawn Cemetery in Sudbury, Ontario. It was so much fun! Although we were the only ones in the cemetery searching for clues, it was still a nice way to spend some time on a Sunday afternoon. Park Lawn Cemetery is not the oldest cemetery in the city, as it was established in 1924. But it is a large one, which I thought would be an advantage to searching for clues. I may have been half right. We started strong, finding a few clues pretty quickly, but we started getting stumped. We fanned out and as I searched I fell into my normal cemetery photography mode, which is a little bit slower-paced. I did eventually manage to find 12 of the 20 clues, but it was way too late to place in the top 5. I think the fastest time may have been 12 minutes!
I was no where close to that time, but that’s ok! It was a great opportunity to get outside, enjoy one of the last beautiful weekends of October, visit a cemetery and spend some time with my mother. We spent about an hour in the cemetery. After I submitted my photos, we wandered around a little bit, enjoying the weather and looking at the beautiful stones. We also found some interesting epitaphs that I think will require some research, later on, to learn their story.
I think this years Scavenger Hunt was a success! I can’t wait to participate again next year! It was a really fun way to close the cemetery season for me.
If you are not aware, November usually brings with it some pretty cold weather here in Northern Ontario, and that means lots of snow. I’m not fond of winter, so I tend to stay indoors during the colder months. That means my cemetery visits are pretty much done for this year.
That doesn’t mean that you will stop seeing content from me!
In the colder months, I focus on editing the monstrous number of photos taken over the summer. I’ll be doing portfolio updates in the coming months, adding to what’s currently on the website. I’ll also be doing more work uploading memorials to Find a Grave, helping clean up their cemetery map information for Ontario, and transcribing photos. I’ll also be sharing more cemetery road trip stories from over the summer, and cemetery book reviews. I’ll also be taking some time to bake and share some more tombstone recipes. I don’t think I have made one since the spring!
That being said, I hope that you have had a wonderful October, were able to enjoy some fun activities throughout the month, and got to visit a cemetery or two! I would love to hear about your October adventures in the comments.
TalkDeath is a hub for a changing death-conscious public. They aim to bridge the gap between death professionals and the general public and help people make informed end-of-life decisions. This is the third annual Halloween Cemetery Scavenger Hunt. It seems to be getting bigger and better every year!
This years event starts Sunday afternoon, at 1 p.m. EST/10 a.m. PST, and you can join in from anywhere in the world.
To participate, all you have to do is visit your favorite local cemetery, the more historic the better, and follow along on TalkDeaths Instagram account for the clues! It promises to be a fun day of cemetery wandering as you explore the gravestones to match the clues, like symbols, names, and dates.
When you find your matching monuments, DM TalkDeath your findings. The first 3 people to DM their complete findings will win some beautiful prizes, like a 3D-printed skull planter, beautiful artwork, memorial pins, and more.
Full event details, as well as rules and clues, will be rolled out on TalkDeaths’ social channels as we get closer to the event date. So check back often to stay up-to-date.
I missed out on this fun event last year, so I wanted to help spread the word about it this year. As long as the weather holds out, I will be participating from Park Lawn Cemetery to try and find all the clues. It’s a fairly large cemetery, and I haven’t visited it since 2011, so I thought now would be a good opportunity. I am planning on making an afternoon of it as my mother will be joining me as well. A scavenger hunt is a great opportunity to get some friends together for a fun outing and do something a little different for Halloween.
Have you done a cemetery scavenger hunt before? Will you be participating this year? I would love to hear about your experience in the comments!
Last weekend, my fiancé Chris and I spent the night at a haunted Airbnb. Since we’ve been engaged, it’s become an annual tradition to have a haunted holiday in October. Last year, we spent the night in room 105, the most haunted room at the Inn at the Falls in Bracebridge, Ontario. This year, we spent the night at the Beck House in Penetanguishene, Ontario.
The Beck House, built in 1885, is one of the oldest standing buildings in Simcoe County.1 It was built by Charles Beck, a wealthy lumber magnate, for his wife Emelia and their nine children. Charles, who also went by the name Carl, was mayor of the town from 1892 to 1895. In 1903, he was the first person to buy an automobile in the area.2 Sadly, two of his nine children died in the house, at a very young age. Emelia, their mother, also passed away young.3
Today the house has been converted into apartments for permanent residents, but two apartments on the top floor are available to rent through Airbnb. Many visitors to the Beck House have reported flickering lights, hearing footsteps, and unexplained knocking. Some have even heard disembodied voices, and have felt invisible hands tucking them in at night.
The house itself is just beautiful and is quite imposing as you come up the driveway toward it. The red brick, slate roof, and Queen Anne revival design give off elegant but spooky vibes.2 The house was decorated for Halloween when we arrived, which added to the spooky atmosphere, with pumpkins on the stairs, and ravens perched on the veranda railing.
As you enter the house, you are greeted with large whiteboards that are covered in writing from visitors’ past. Here, people shared their experiences, thanked the hosts, or just marked that they were there. Some guests recommend what to keep watch for, like the doll in the green dress, or suggested other interesting places to visit in the area, like the Asylum Point Cemetery.
Walking up to our room, was like walking through time. The beautiful winding staircase, with its creaky steps and beautiful hardwood railing, almost seems to go up forever. Among a smattering of Halloween decor, were more historical pieces, like vintage dresses and a spindle wheel. Even more gorgeous antiques waited for us inside apartment 302.
The apartment is beautifully decorated with antique furniture and items. I especially loved the decor in the red room, with its gold cherub lamps, antique rocking horse, and a gorgeous dressing table complete with an antique mirror. There is also a little alcove in the living room area that is filled with vintage hats and hat boxes. All these little touches add so much to the space and the experience of staying there.
We checked into our room at about 6 p.m., and after briefly exploring the space and dropping off our things we headed out for supper. We made mental notes of the position of the doll in the green dress, just in case. We had a lovely supper at Flynn’s Public House, downtown. The downtown core looks lovely, but we didn’t have much time to explore it. After supper, we visited Discovery Harbour to experience Pumpkinferno, a display of meticulously hand-carved jack-o-lanterns. It was magical! Walking among hundreds of lit jack-o-lanterns while Halloween-themed music plays is the epitome of Halloween. There were also some haunted attractions there to visit like Grim Reaper’s Grove, Macabre Mansion, and the Ghost Ship. They even had a little cemetery set up. After enjoying some hot chocolate, we headed back to the Beck House and apartment 302.
The doll in the green dress had not moved, and nothing seemed to be out of place. We settled in the living room to decompress from the days’ travels and adventures. In the dining room, there is a notebook filled with previous guests’ experiences, I read a few while we had some snacks. We decided to spend some time alone in each of the rooms, to see if a spirit may want to reach out. I took the red room, while Chris took the green room. I read with the light on, now and then peeking at the rocking horse to see if it was moving. Chris sat in the dark in the green room, with only the light from his phone as he scrolled on social media. He didn’t experience anything either. After a while, he joined me in the red room. We decided we would spend the night in the green room, as we could hear another tenant’s TV below us. Then we retired to bed.
I don’t generally sleep well when we stay at haunted locations. I think it’s because I am afraid to miss out on seeing something supernatural happen. Eventually, I did fall asleep. Nothing peculiar happened, although. At one point during the night, Chris seemed to be having bad dreams. He was moving a lot in his sleep and even cried out. At exactly that moment I heard a creak in the floorboards. It sounded like it came from the doorway of the bedroom. We had gone to sleep with the door open. I didn’t see anything in the doorway. The rest of the night was uneventful.
In the morning, we packed our things and said goodbye to the Beck House, but we still needed to say goodbye to Carl and Emelia. After a nice big breakfast at Phil’s Casual Dining, we stopped in to visit the Presbyterian Cemetery.
At the back of this pretty little cemetery is the Beck Mausoleum. It’s a rather imposing structure, flanked on either side by lovely white planters. The door is firmly locked, with a charming cast iron gate protecting it. I’m not certain of who rests within the mausoleum, but I would think that Charles, Emelia, and some their children, if not all, are laid to rest here. I thanked Carl and Emelia for our lovely visit in their house and paid my respects. Directly in front of the mausoleum, there are many grave markers for later generations of Becks. This is the only mausoleum in this small cemetery, standing like a sentinel keeping watch.
We did visit a couple of other spots in Penetanguishene, but that will be a story for another day. I hope you enjoyed this Haunted Cemetery Road Trip story. Have you ever spent the night in a haunted hotel? Do you have any October traditions? I would love to read about them in the comments!
Happy October and as always, thank you for reading!
It’s October, so I wanted to continue my theme of spooky blog posts. Today, I wanted to talk a little bit about haunted cemeteries, and in particular my local haunted cemetery.
Just like Elm Street, every town has one, right?
We often see supposedly haunted cemeteries in TV and movies, and there are MANY stories from all over the world about them. Some of the most haunted cemeteries that come to mind are Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1 in New Orleans and Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery in Chicago.
Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1 in New Orleans, Louisiana is very well known, not only for its above-ground crypts but also as the final resting place of a famous Voodoo priestess, Marie Laveau. Her ghost has been seen wandering the rows of crypts at night. I’m sure you’ve also heard of the ritual that visitors often perform at her grave, in which they draw an X on her crypt, and turn around three times in hopes of having their wish granted. People also leave small offerings at her graveside.
Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery in Chicago is also an allegedly haunted location. “In the 1920s and ’30s, the cemetery’s pond was reportedly a dumping ground for bodies murdered by Chicago’s organized crime families. Now the area is reportedly haunted by numerous ghosts, including a lady in white holding an infant, a black dog, and strangely, a phantom farmhouse.”1 You may have seen the reportedly authentic photo from 1991, of a ghostly woman sitting on a gravestone. This amazing infrared photo, if it is indeed authentic, was taken by Judy Huff, a member of the Ghost Research Society.2 The photo was taken during an investigation at Bachelor’s Grove, and there was reportedly no one in the area when the photo was taken.
Looking a little closer to home, one of my local cemeteries is said to be haunted. I have visited the Lasalle Cemetery many times, during the day and in the evening. I have never had any experiences myself, but I do recall hearing many stories about it while I was growing up.
I remember being at a sleepover when I was in high school. There was a group of us, staying up late and watching movies. The conversation turned to scary stories and my friend’s older sister stepped in to tell us a story that had happened to her while visiting Lasalle Cemetery at midnight with some friends. Thinking back, this was a long time ago so the details are a little fuzzy. I do remember she had said she was there with a couple of her friends. They had driven into the cemetery through the entrance that takes you directly to a large cross with three statues.
They got out of the car to look around, all the while making jokes and laughing. She was uncomfortable and creeped out a little by the statues and the large cross that loomed before them. She said something about looking at the statues and getting an eerie feeling. Her friends continued to make jokes and her uneasiness grew. She suddenly felt the need to get away from there, and when she happened to look up at the cross and statues, the statues had all changed! While before they had pious faces, with their eye looking upward to Jesus on the cross, they now were looking directly at her with grimacing faces. She screamed and got back into the car, screaming at her friends that it was time to leave.
Needless to say, the story freaked us out! But did it happen? Or was this a tall tale told by an older sister trying to scare her younger sister and her friends?
In 2018 I came across an interesting article promoting a local Haunted Walk for October. The article talked about local haunted locations around town, Lasalle Cemetery was one of them. My interest peaked. The article doesn’t have a lot to say about the haunting in the cemetery, aside from reported “ghost duels”, which sound incredible.3 The article did suggest that there were more stories to be found on Reddit.
In the Sudbury Ghosts thread on Reddit, many people have chimed in with personal ghost stories, like hearing strange sounds coming from the cemetery, or seeing running figures that seem to disappear into thin air. Someone in that thread also mentioned the “Grave Guardian” and asked if it’s just an urban legend.4 That’s the second time I’ve heard that name.
Years ago, It came up during a conversation with a co-worker. He mentioned this Grave Guardian, but I don’t recall any of the specifics. It’s interesting to note that after some online research, I have yet to find any stories or experiences about this supposed spirit. Apparently, there is a “legendary” story revolving around the Grave Guardian, but I haven’t found it.
One of the best references I have found so far is from an article by Week in Weird, about a ghostly video that was taken at Lasalle Cemetery. That article, written in 2016 states that Lasalle Cemetery is known for being “incredibly paranormally-active” with a “legendary” story. Unfortunately, these stories must have been kept in private circles as there is not much to be found online, aside from reports of disembodied voices and a theory that the Grave Guardian is connected to the largest gravestone in the cemetery.5 Even the video that the article references has since been taken down. The video supposedly shows a fully-formed apparition manifesting behind the videographer. The consensus seems to be that this video was legitimate, and not a hoax. I reached out to the video creator but didn’t get a response.
In my research, I found another video about Lasalle Cemetery, that had also been taken down. This video was created by Golden Ghost, a local paranormal investigation team. I reached out to them to find out why the video had been taken down, and if they had any stories they could share. I heard back from Austyn, the Team Leader and CEO of Golden Ghost. He had some interesting stories to share with me. He has also heard the stories about the Grave Guardian but has yet to make contact. The closest his team has gotten is hearing mentions of the Guardian through the spirit box they use during investigations. He went on to tell me about some interesting experiences he has had with his team, and what he would call an evil entity. This entity seems to be attached to a certain section of the cemetery. That was why the video was taken down; to keep the location secret in hopes of protecting others from encountering this malicious spirit.
Could that area of the cemetery be the one with the largest gravestone? Could this evil entity and the Grave Guardian be the same spirit? This is just speculation of course, as the stories of the Guardian have been fairly neutral. If you can call them stories. There are no real stories to be found about this supposed Grave Guardian. This leads me to think that it’s just that, a tidbit of a story that people share when conversation turns to ghosts and the supernatural. People have heard of it, but no one has any personal stories to share, except for the name, which gets shared again and again. It is a good name for a ghost, after all.
Isn’t that how urban legends start? What do you think?
It’s my favorite time of year again, October! I love crisp sweater weather and crunchy leaves on the ground. Dead leaves are one of my absolute favorite smells. It’s also the best time for leaf peeping, and of course, visiting cemeteries.
This is also the time that you will see Cemetery Tours being advertised. The gorgeous fall colors are a lovely contrast to the beautiful grey tombstones. Cemetery Tours are a great opportunity to photograph a new cemetery, learn about local history and take a nice cemetery stroll. You may even hear a ghost story or two.
Cemetery Tours are usually put on by local Museums or Historical Groups. The tour guide will lead you through the cemetery, explaining the history of the place as well as highlighting the stories of historical figures buried within it. Sometimes they will also talk about famous and infamous graves. Some tours have guides that dress up and use a lantern to light the way, while other tours have actors dressed in period clothing that will tell the life stories from the deceased’s graveside. Some tours are self-guided. On this type of tour, you will be provided with a map with points of interest marked on it. You can do these tours at your own pace.
I love cemetery tours! You can learn a lot about the history of your local cemeteries, and notable graves and may even learn some obscure trivia along the way. It’s also lots of fun to meet people with similar interests on these tours.
So for today’s blog post, I wanted to share some Cemetery Tours that are happening this fall in Ontario.
It’s that time of the year where everyone loves hearing scary stories, but real history holds some of the scariest and unnerving stories. Join us as we take a trip through the real history of the House of Industry and Refuge and explore some of the more unsettling stories of inmates and staff that called this place home.
The Museum which is housed in the Old Poorhouse building still looks after the graves and these tours are an opportunity to tell the stories of those that lived, died, and still remain on the site.
Enjoy a lantern lit tour of the Wellington County House of Industry and Refuge (or Poorhouse) Cemetery. Between 1877-1947 the building was the Wellington County Poorhouse and over 600 people died on site during those years. Those that had no family or friends to claim their body were buried here, and 271 burials took place over those years.
Please be aware there are no accessibility routes for this tour. This tour is designed for a 14+ audience.
Tours begin at 7:00 pm and 9:00 pm on the front steps of the Wellington County Museum.
The Stories in the Stones Tours tell fascinating stories through free guided walking tours at Hamilton Cemetery each Saturday between May to November.
Local historian and storyteller Robin McKee guides you through historic Hamilton Cemetery with various themed tours he has created. Themed tours will include early settlers such as Robert Land and George Hamilton, victims of the Desjardins Railway Disaster.
Tours start at 11 a.m. at the Cemetery Gatehouse (777 York Blvd.) across from Dundurn Castle and run for approximately 1.5 hours. Tours take place rain or shine and tours and dates are subject to change.
They also offer a History Unearthed historical walking tour.
Come and explore the dark side of Kenora’s past in the largest graveyard in Northern Ontario— the Lake of the Woods Cemetery.
The tour looks at Kenora’s history through the lens of true crime tales, and murder mysteries, the Ontario-Manitoba border war, sickness and disease, and one of the most famous (and grisliest) bank robberies in Canadian history. These true stories of real people combine to give a history of Kenora like you’ve never heard before.
We’ll explore these topics and more on this guided tour in Kenora’s silent city of the dead.
Takes place on Saturday, October 8 and Sunday, October 9.
1 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. start times. $15 / person
Join us at the historic Mount Pleasant Cemetery for a tour diving into the history of the cemetery’s architecture and the unique ecosystem that make the grounds beautiful and serene. Learn details about the culture of death during the Victorian era, and the art and architecture carved into the monuments and gravestones at the Mount Pleasant site.
October 15, 16, 22, 23 at 2 p.m., 3 p.m., and 4 p.m.
These tours offer a unique opportunity to discover Niagara Falls through a visit to one of the most historic cemeteries in Canada. Led by a costumed guide, the human drama unfolds as guests wander the grounds and happen upon theatrical performances that provide a glimpse into the lives of some of the people from our City’s history.
Ticket price $12 per person or $10 per museum member. Tickets must be purchased in advance; rain or shine and they are non-refundable.
Post tour refreshments and open house are offered at Battle Ground Hotel Museum just across the street.
This tour features only dark history and strange stories of Canada’s Prettiest Town, Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Featuring the true villain of the 1813 burning, a disgruntled British politician. With a disappearance that almost ended Freemasonry, the lover’s public execution and standing up to slavery with violence. This tour includes a leisurely walk through Ontario’s oldest cemetery, stories of Niagara’s daredevils and a hidden historic fort.
Greenwood Cemetery, “The People’s Cemetery,” is home to many of Owen Sound’s luminaries, from political leaders, ship captains, and Victoria Cross winners to remarkable women, African Americans, athletes, pioneers, and religious, business, and medical leaders. It was established in 1858.
The four self-guided walking tours available are Tour 1, 2, and 3 in Greenwood Cemetery and The People’s Cemetery tour.
The Beechwood Cemetery Stroll is a guided historical tour through Beechwood, the National Cemetery of Canada.
Tours are given on the last Sunday of each month, rain or shine, and begin at 1 p.m. Tours start from the Beechwood National Memorial Centre, located just off the Beechwood Avenue entrance.
The Beechwood Cemetery Stroll is led by trained volunteers and focuses on local history and notable features and sections within this National Historic Site. The tour is free of charge, and is family friendly. The route for the Stroll is a gentle 1.5 hour walk and is wheelchair accessible.
Tour St. James on the Lines Cemetery by lantern encountering many spirits of Penetanguishene’s past. Discover the significant history of the church. Light refreshments to be served after your tour.
Tickets are $10 per person for this one-night-only event, happening October 14. There are two start times to choose from; 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. At the time of this writing, the 8 p.m. tour is sold out, but there are a few tickets left for the 7 p.m. tour.
Re-living history through guided tours of Toronto’s beautiful, historic cemeteries. Cemetery tours are announced regularly on their Facebook page.
This is just a small selection of the cemetery tours being offered this year in Ontario. Some events will be announced closer to their event date and may be a one-night-only affair. I would recommend searching often for cemeteries near you so you don’t miss out on a fun opportunity. The other option is to do your own self-guided tour, by doing the research beforehand on historical, infamous, and famous graves.
Have you been on a cemetery walking tour? What was your experience? I would love to read about it in the comments.
For this month’s cemetery book review, I wanted to share an old favourite of mine. I first found out about Charles Wilkins’s book In the Land of Long Fingernails: A Gravedigger’s Memoir, in the book section of Rue Morgue Magazine. Rue Morgue has always been a great resource for discovering new authors.
This book, first published in 2008, is a coming-of-age memoir set in a Toronto cemetery in 1969. It’s filled with weird-but-true events, that could only happen while working in a cemetery.
Here is the full book synopsis: “During the hazy summer of 1969, Charles Wilkins, then a student at the University of Toronto, took a job as a gravedigger. The bizarre-but-true events of that time, including a midsummer gravediggers’ strike, the unearthing of a victim of an unsolved murder, and a little illegal bone-shifting, play out amongst a Barnum-esque parade of mavericks and misfits in this macabre and hilarious memoir of mortality, materialism, and the gradual coming-of-age of an impressionable young man.” – Goodreads.com, In the Land of Long Fingernails
I enjoyed this book immensely, I couldn’t put it down! It’s a very easy read with great pacing. I found I devoured it quickly. I think it also helped that I felt a connection to this story because it takes place so close to me, in Toronto, Ontario. The specific Toronto cemetery is never named in the book, but being that I live about 4 hours away, I know I can visit it someday. There are some incredibly funny moments, but also some somber ones, creating a balance between the anecdotal stories. It’s a fascinating memoir but also a great insight into the everyday work life of a gravedigger in the late 60s.
I highly recommend this book if you’re looking for a light read, that could also fall into the feel-good read category. It’s also a quick read, which would make it a perfect choice if you need a break from heavier or academic content.
I am always on the hunt for cemetery-related book recommendations. Please feel free to share yours in the comments. If you are an author and have a cemetery-related book you would like me to review, please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to hear from you.
Summertime is meant for road trips! In July, I went on a two-week vacation full of adventures. One of the trips I was looking forward to most on my vacation was visiting Algonquin Provincial Park. Algonquin is Canada’s first Provincial Park, having been founded in 1893.1 It’s a large and beautiful piece of wilderness, that also holds a mystery.
My 80-year-old mother joined me on this camping trip. It had been about 40 years since she last went camping, so I made sure we did all the fun camping things; sleeping in a tent, cooking on a fire, and making s’mores. There were a couple of other things on our to-do lists: visit Canoe Lake, search for Mowat Cemetery, and find the grave of Tom Thomson.
The story of Tom Thomson is an interesting one. Today, he is often referred to as the Canadian Van Gogh.2 And rightly so, his use of color and thick strokes vividly bring the northern landscapes to life. Thomson spent a lot of time painting and fishing in beautiful Algonquin Park. His love of the area must have been contagious as he soon had other painters joining him on his painting excursions. They even had a name for themselves, the “Algonquin Park School of painters”.3 You might recognize them more now as the Group of Seven. Unfortunately, Tom wouldn’t live long enough to see that recognition as he died mysteriously, two years prior. I would consider him a founding member, of the now famous group of painters.
There have been many things written about what happened to Tom Thomson on that fateful day in July. But to this day, no one knows for sure what happened. With so many varying accounts over the years, speculating what may have happened, the details of the events don’t seem to add up. We do know that Tom’s canoe was found on July 8th, but he was not. His body was found in Canoe lake, 8 days later on July 16th.4 He was found with bad bruising on his face and head, with a fishing line wrapped around his left or right ankle, depending on which account you read. In most accounts, the fishing line is seen as an indication of foul play. I don’t agree. I have been doing a lot of reading about this mystery and one thing that always stands out to me is the fishing line.
Tom’s body was found floating in the lake. Many people speculate that something heavy was tied to the fishing line to weigh the body down, that he was purposely drowned. BUT all the accounts mention that the body was tethered to the shore, and not removed immediately from the water. I think it would make sense that they would have used a fishing line to tether the body to the shore, which would account for the fishing line. One blog post I found corroborates this thought, but for some reason has not been looked at more closely. The blog post comes from a professional journalist, Robert Reid. In his blog post, Epistles from the Grave, Robert talks about letters that were written in the 1970s by Jack Wilkinson. He would have been six years old at the time of Tom’s death. These letters were written to correct some inaccuracies in the accounts that were circulating, most notably the fishing line. In the letters, Wilkinson confirmed that the fishing line was merely used to tether the body to the shore, so it would not float away until the coroner could be alerted and come collect the body.5 This would mean the fishing line had nothing to do with Tom’s death. Still, the questions persist—was it murder? Or was his death an accident? These details we may never know.
Tom was hastily buried at Mowat cemetery, sometimes referred to as Canoe Lake cemetery. This is not what his family wanted. They wanted him brought home. So his remains were exhumed the next day and transported to Leith, Ontario, near Owen Sound. There his remains were buried once again, and a proper headstone was erected.1 Here lies another facet of the mystery—many people claim his body was never moved.
Is that why people also claim to see a ghost in the early morning fog on Canoe lake? Over the years, many people have reported seeing a man slowly paddling a distinctive grey canoe through the still waters of the early morning.6What’s interesting about these sightings is that in life Tom Thomson had painted his canoe a unique dove-grey color, that he had mixed himself from his paints. This dove-grey canoe stood out among the identically colored canoes of the local lodges.1 Unfortunately, I was not able to find anyone in the park who had experienced any sightings firsthand.
Our search for his grave began on the morning of July 17th, which just so happened to be the 105th anniversary of Tom’s burial at Mowat Cemetery. We drove into Algonquin Park that morning, and after stopping in to check on our campsite at Tea lake, we decided to try and find the cemetery. I had been planning this trip since the early spring of this year and had been researching how to find the hidden cemetery. In early June, Back Road’s Bill, a local adventure/nature writer, published an article about the two graves of Tom Thomson, so I reached out to him about directions for reaching the cemetery. He was very helpful. With the coordinates locked into my Google Maps, I felt pretty confident that we could reach the cemetery.
That confidence wavered a little though when we visited the Canoe Lake Access Point Permit Office. We stopped in, after taking in the view of the infamous Canoe Lake, to buy some firewood and talk to the staff. The clerk was a young man, who had just started working at the permit office. He didn’t have any personal stories to share about the haunting of canoe lake but did have some interesting ideas about where Thomson may actually rest. He shared an interesting theory that the gravedigger that was hired to move the body had sent a coffin filled with dirt and rocks to the family, to approximate the weight of a body. He also told me that the cemetery can only be accessed by canoe and that the back roads I had pointed out are actually the train line, not a road. I was a little dismayed, but I had faith in Back Roads Bill and his map, so we continued on.
And good thing we did! The rail line the Permit office staff talked about was now a camp road. We followed it as far as we could, safely by car. At one turn-off the road became quite rough so we decided to park the car on the side of the road and continue on foot. This would turn out to be our hike for the day. It was a very nice walk in the lush woods of Algonquin Park. After walking for a time, we came upon some cottages on the lakefront. One cottage had a large family gathering outside, so we stopped and asked them for directions to make sure we were on the right path. They assured us we were and gave us some landmarks to go by, as there is no sign marking the cemetery. We continued on our way, trying to align ourselves with Canoe lake, and picture what it would look like to travel the route by canoe. We couldn’t easily see the lake. Unfortunately, the landmarks the cottagers gave were not the most helpful and we got a little turned around.
For an area that seems incredibly remote, there are a fair number of family cottages out there. We happened upon another cottage where it looked like they were packing up to go home. We asked again for directions. The gentleman we had asked was kind enough to walk with us to the entrance of the cemetery trail. We had gone a bit too far, having stayed to the left when we should have taken a right at the fork in the trail. His german shorthaired pointer puppy joined us, zooming back and forth past us as we walked. He told us how that day was the anniversary of Tom’s burial and how his family sometimes walked up to the cemetery to pay their respects. He didn’t have any ghost stories to share though. He brought us to the start of the cemetery trail, a small almost hidden trail that veers again to the right off of the bigger trail. We thanked him and continued on our way. This part of the trail was more rugged, with felled trees and a faint trail that was sometimes hard to distinguish in the wild forest. My mother said she was starting to have doubts at this point in our adventure, but those doubts faded when we came to a hill.
Sitting at the top of the hill we could see an old weathered fence and the supposedly 500 year old birch tree. It’s the largest birch tree I have ever seen! We happily climbed to the top and walked into Mowat cemetery. This small pioneer cemetery is a small remnant of the town of Mowat. This mill town was the largest in Algonquin Park and had about 500 residents in its heyday. The town included a hospital and school, as well as recreational lodges. Tom Thomson often frequented Mowat Lodge. The town began to dwindle, after the lumber recession.7 Today, all that remains of Mowat is the cemetery and a few cement foundations.
The cemetery is very small, with only a handful of grave markers. There is one field stone, and two engraved headstones within the picket fence. There is also a white wooden Latin cross, that marks the grave of Tom Thomson. It is thought that the cross was placed by the CBC in the 1960s for a documentary. There also seems to be a depression in the ground at his grave. There were a few grave goods left for Tom; a small electric tea light, some paint brushes and a fishing lure. There was no one at the cemetery when we visited, but I think Tom still receives his fair share of visitors.
Within the cemetery fence, there is a small grave marker for Alexander B Hayhurst, a child who died of diphtheria in 1915.
There is also a large flat gravestone for Ja’s Watson who is thought to be the first person buried at Mowat Cemetery. His stone is hardly legible now, but records say that the epitaph reads:
“In Memory of Ja’s Watson / The First White Person Buried / at / Canoe Lake / Died May 25 1897 being one of / about 500 employed at this Camp by / the Gilmour Lumbering Co. Aged 21 yrs / Remember Comrades (when passing by) / As you are now so once was I / As I am now so you shall be / Prepare thyself to follow me.”8
We spent a lot of time in the cemetery, trying to decipher the stones and admiring the enormous birch tree, and paying our respects to Tom Thomson. We tried to imagine what the cemetery would have looked like in 1917 when he was laid to rest. After a time we decided to head back down the hill and retrace our steps back to the car. It was a bit of a long journey, but it was incredibly rewarding. Back at our campsite we had a nice campfire supper of burgers and corn on the cob and talked about our visit to Mowat cemetery. We speculated on what might have happened to Tom and whether or not he was still laid to rest on that hill. My mother was very adamant that he was still there. After supper, we made some s’mores for dessert and enjoyed the campfire as it lit up the darkness of the night.
The next morning we decided to explore the park a little more before heading home. We stopped in at the Algonquin Art Centre to look around. This world-class art gallery showcases some of Canada’s foremost wilderness and wildlife artists.9 Outside, on the Centre grounds, we took a look at a set of plaques celebrating Tom Thomson. They told the story of Thomson as a painter, his attraction to Algonquin Park, his body of work, and his legacy as an artist. We also viewed an outdoor exhibit of painted canoes, called Tom Thomson’s Canoe Murals. We spent some time inside the gallery as well, taking some time to admire the gorgeous art gallery and browsing the gift shop. This is where I purchased my copy of Northern Light by Roy MacGregor.
Northern light: The enduring mystery of Tom Thomson and the woman who loved him by Roy MacGregor is a very good read. It presents some really interesting theories as to what may have happened to Thomson, and also suggests that his body never left Mowat Cemetery. In the 1950s, a small group of men took it upon themselves to prove whether Tom was still buried in the cemetery on Canoe lake. They took some shovels, went up to the cemetery, and started digging. I think to even their surprise, they did find human remains. They took a few bone samples, including the skull, and sent them for analysis. The results were not what they expected and seemed to raise more questions.1 More recently, a facial reconstruction was attempted using photographs of the unearthed skull. The face that emerged was pretty uncanny, but does that mean the mystery is solved?10
I don’t think the mystery will ever truly be solved. I believe the truth of what happened to Tom Thomson went to the grave a long time ago. But that doesn’t mean people will stop trying to solve it. Stories will continue to be told about his tragic life, cut short. As much as Algonquin Park was a part of Tom’s life, his artwork is now a part of it as well. You can find his artwork at the Art Centre. You can see the inspiration for his art in the beauty of the wilderness. You can learn more about his life in the Visitor Centre, alongside the history of the land and the evolution of the communities within the park. Tom Thomson, whether it be his artwork, his story, or his ghost will continue to be a big part of Algonquin Park.
I really enjoyed my time exploring the park and searching for the grave of Tom Thomson. It was a rewarding trip, that let me explore nature while also learning more about art and Canadian history. It was one of the more challenging cemeteries to find, but it was a beautiful place to visit and photograph. My mother enjoyed this trip immensely. She was a bit leery at first, but the history drew her in. She talks about our trip often. Coincidentally, I started writing this blog post on what would have been Tom’s 145th birthday, August 5th, 2022. My mother shares his birthday.
Have you ever been to Algonquin Park? Have you seen the ghost of Tom Thomson? I would love to read your stories in the comments. If you are interested in reading more about the mysterious death of Tom Thomson, check out the links below.
Thanks for reading!
MacGregor, R. (2010). Northern light: The enduring mystery of Tom Thomson and the woman who loved him. Vintage Canada.
Over the weekend, my friends and I went on a cemetery road trip.
We had it planned and mapped out for a while now and were excited to spend the day together while exploring cemeteries. We started bright and early and fully caffeinated.
I just finished going through all the photos I took on our adventures, all 957 of them. The first thing I always do after a cemetery adventure is, upload my photos to my computer and file them accordingly and get the number of cemeteries visited.
If you have been following me for a little bit now, you may remember that our record for cemeteries visited in one day is 13. Well, Saturday was a full day of adventures, and we have a new record!
A personal best. I have the best friends and travel companions a taphophile could ask for! I love that they love exploring cemeteries as much as I do, and enjoy a good challenge too.
It will take me a while to sort through my photos and get them posted. But they should be popping up on my social media channels and website soon. I will most likely write a more in-depth post about our day of adventures in the future as well. There were some fun surprises!
I am in the midst of working on a blog post about my adventures searching for the grave of Tom Thomson in Algonquin Park. I’m hoping to have it up in the next week or two. In the meantime, I thought I would take a look at some Egyptian revival architecture that can sometimes be found in cemeteries, more specifically—obelisks.
Obelisks are Egyptian in origin, but became a popular Christian funerary symbol. They are now a common sight in most cemeteries. I have found quite a few in my cemetery travels and wanted to share some of them with you today.
In Understanding Cemetery Symbols, Tui Snider notes that obelisks became popular symbols after Napoleon invaded Egypt in the late 1700s. An obelisk is thought to represent a ray of light, but it can also symbolize focused spiritual goals, with the wide base narrowing to a point, symbolizing the deceased reuniting with God at death, and the two becoming one.
Different variations of obelisks can be found throughout a cemetery. For example, Truncated obelisks do not come to a sharp point at the top, but are flat or topped with another symbol like a cross, urn or an orb.
Obelisks can sometimes be found at the center of a family plot, representing the family’s connection to God. They are particularly well suited for this, as there is generally a lot of room on all four sides of the stone to inscribe the names of family members.
You might also find vaulted obelisks. These stones have points on all four sides at the top instead of coming to one point.
Understanding Cemetery Symbols: A Field Guide for Historic Graveyards by Tui Snider
Stories in Stone: The Complete Guide to Cemetery Symbolism by Douglas Keister