One of many broken headstones in Union Cemetery. Newspaperman Bob Edwards’s grave is in the background.
…and discover historic headstones in Union Cemetery are falling apart
“What strikes us most forcibly is the quickness with which the dead are forgotten in this western country. ‘Old Jorkins has gone toes up.’ ‘Too bad — booze, I suppose?’ A string of buggies, filled with men talking real estate, follow his remains to the graveyard, and pouf! he passes completely out of memory.”
— Calgary Eye Opener , March 23, 1907
Calgary newspaperman Bob Edwards’s grave sits just metres away from Macleod Trail, where thousands of commuters unknowingly rush past it every day. It’s easy to miss Edwards’s resting place when you’re hurtling by at 70 kilometres per hour, but recently we finally visited the grave for the first time in our relatively young life. (In his writing, Edwards always referred to himself in the plural “we,” a tradition we will honour in this story.)
We think Edwards was the best journalist this city ever had, and we enjoy reading him very much even though he is now very dead (he passed in 1922 after irregularly publishing the Calgary Eye Opener for 20 years). A visit to his grave was very significant to us, and we entered Union Cemetery January 3 with a mix of sombre reverence and childlike curiosity. Edwards’s grave is the stuff of local journalism legend — the concrete base of the headstone allegedly contains a copy of the Eye Opener and Edwards’s pocket-flask of whisky.
After we arrived at his earthly row — section R, block 1A — and located his headstone, we immediately noticed several unsightly beer cans lying nearby. We briefly shook our head until we remembered that Edwards himself was a rabid consumer of alcohol. (Hence the whisky in the headstone.) We soon discovered another fitting piece of litter blown against his stone: a faded page from the Calgary Sun .
After a few moments of silence, we looked around and noted that many of the nearby headstones are in serious disrepair. Two gravesites to the right, a stone is being lifted off its base by a large shrub. In the row ahead of Edwards’s, a headstone has its top missing altogether. It reads, simply, “Dec 6 1918.” And one plot to the left of that one is a toppled headstone lying face down in the snow, as if someone pushed it from behind. Even Edwards’s grave is leaning heavily to the left, something we found ironic since he was a conservative (in the best sense of the word) who sold papers by jostling and ridiculing Liberal governments.
During the past year we have heard a lot about the redeveloped Reader Rock Garden on the north end of Union Cemetery. Meanwhile, the historic graves at the south end of the pie-shaped cemetery languish without any attention. Some look like they’ve been vandalized. Others have decayed with time. Who, we wondered, is responsible for the upkeep of these headstones? We then remembered that we are a reporter, and it’s our job to find out why certain things are the way they are. So that’s what we did.
Don Sucha, an instructor in the University of Calgary’s museum and heritage studies program, explained to us that the city doesn’t own burial plots. “Cemeteries are kind of a funny thing because they’re public parks, but they’re composed of private property,” Sucha says. “And because they’re private property, any [repair] to the monuments is up to the owners — in most cases, the families.”
However, people have been buried in Union Cemetery since 1891, and many descendants aren’t around to maintain the stones. Gary Daudlin, the business co-ordinator for the city’s cemeteries division, told us that stones toppled from age or vandalism present a challenge. “The cemetery really isn’t budgeted to maintain [headstones], but we actually do,” says Daudlin. “We do our best to get them back up, especially some of the older ones and taller ones. As they deteriorate, they do become dangerous.”
Because many of the old headstones are made from porous materials like sandstone and marble, water gets into the monuments and eventually breaks them into pieces — “almost like sugar,” says Daudlin. Taking care of the historic graves, he says, “is, pardon the pun, a monumental task.” The city mostly repairs headstones in the summer when it has more employees. “I can’t say that there’s a specific time frame or schedule to get at it,” says Daudlin. “It’s more reactive to the situation.” Monument companies also often repair fallen headstones when they encounter them, says Sucha.
There are many other important characters of Calgary’s history — including cowboy John Ware, Col. James Macleod and Senator James Lougheed — buried in Union Cemetery. Edwards, however, has the unfortunate circumstance of being buried directly alongside sidewalk-starved Macleod Trail. “There’s no sidewalk on Macleod Trail on that side,” says Sucha. “So people are almost forced to walk through the cemetery if they’re walking home from the bar back to downtown…. That row, that sort of area, is one of the most vandalized areas.”
While we think Edwards would empathize with the bleary-eyed drunks who stumble through the cemetery at night (the Eye Opener regularly delayed publication when its editor became incapacitated by alcohol), we also think he’d want them to use their alleged brains and treat the graves with respect. Edwards’s grave is “probably the most vandalized of all the tombstones,” Sucha says, because it’s the tallest in its row. However, we are glad to report that as of January 3, his stone was standing defiantly upright, even though it looks like it may fall over in a few years unless it’s righted — literally, since it’s leaning left.