Book Review: In the Land of Long Fingernails: A Gravedigger’s Memoir

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 MagazineRue 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 hello@chantallarochelle.ca. I would love to hear from you.

Thanks for reading!

Cemeteries and Summer Vacation

Summers in Northern Ontario are very short, so you need to make the most of them. Before long we’ll be knee-deep in frozen snow. But let’s not think about that right now!

I just got back from a lovely two-week vacation. My fiancé and I were finally able to visit some family and friends we haven’t seen in 3 years, due to COVID-19. It felt almost like a normal vacation. We traveled a wee bit, and of course, I visited some cemeteries! 

My vacation was split into three different trips. I went camping at Algonquin Provincial Park with my 80-year-old mother. She hadn’t been camping in about 40 years. We only stayed for one night, but we had all the camping experiences; cooking on a fire, making s’mores, sleeping in a tent, and spending some time at the lake. We also took the opportunity to try finding the grave of Tom Thomson, a famous Canadian painter, who died mysteriously on Canoe Lake. You’ll be able to read more about that adventure in an upcoming blog post. 

My fiancé and I, also took some time to visit Southern Ontario and visit family and friends, that we haven’t seen since before the pandemic. We toured the city a little bit, had some great food, and spent some quality time together. We even got a chance to visit some cemeteries. My fiancé is not very interested in visiting cemeteries, but he is very supportive of my love for cemeteries. I think he may have enjoyed hunting for them as we drove back home. We stopped at a few interesting ones that were along our route. 

I also took some time to visit St. Joseph Island, the historic fort, and the bird sanctuary. My mother came along with me for that little trip as well. We toured the island and explored. We did some hiking and visited the beautiful Adcock’s Woodland Gardens. We also visited a lot of cemeteries, including a pet cemetery. That was a first for me. You’ll be able to read all about that adventure in an upcoming blog post as well. 

I made sure to plan some buffer days to just relax and recoup between heavy days of driving, where I could spend some time with my fur babies and get ready for the next adventure. I also scheduled some days just to do nothing—but those days filled up fast with spontaneous things. Overall, it was a great vacation! I managed to visit 16 cemeteries, reconnect with friends and family, and recharge my batteries. 

It was a wonderful break from work and my normal routine, but now it’s time to get back to it! I am feeling refreshed and am looking forward to writing about my vacation adventures and editing the hundreds of photos I took. I am also really excited about an upcoming special project and am currently playing around with some new ideas for the blog. I was starting to feel like my creative juices were stalling a little bit, but having a break has helped me reset and look at things with fresh eyes.

I hope you can take some time for yourself this summer if you haven’t already. Even if it’s only a long weekend. It’s so important to take the time to refresh and revitalize. To take your mind off work and just enjoy your family, friends, and nature or whatever else that makes you happy!

Thanks for reading! 

A Collection of Books

I love books! I am a big reader and have a large book collection at home, but I love finding stone books among the tombstones while wandering a cemetery. I find them very interesting and love trying to interpret what they mean.

Books can be both decorative or a representation of something. You can sometimes find a book being used as a decorative device to display the name of the deceased along with the birth and death dates. An open book can sometimes represent the human heart, as in it’s emotions are open to the world. An open book may also symbolize a life that has been cut short, before getting to the last page. Another variation of this is an open book with a cloth draped across it. This also represents a life cut short, the veil of death having bookmarked the person’s last chapter before the book is finished being written. A closed book might represent a long life, lived to the last chapter.

Any book found in a cemetery may represent the bible. Sometimes you may even find the words “Holy Bible” engraved on the book.

In my experience, books are not as common as some other funerary symbols, like hands and lambs. I love to photograph them when I do find them. I wanted to share some of my favorites with you today.


References:

  1. Understanding Cemetery Symbols: A Field Guide for Historic Graveyards by Tui Snider
  2. Stories in Stone: The Complete Guide to Cemetery Symbolism by Douglas Keister