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Protecting Places of Memory: Cemeteries in the Coaticook MRC

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--June 21, 2011.

larger_img_6271_0.jpgFollowing up on its April conference on religious heritage, the MRC of Coaticook held a more focused training session this week on cemetery heritage. The event, led by conservator France Rémillard of the Centre de Conservation du Québec, was something of a follow-up to the conferences held in 2008 by the Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network (QAHN), except that it was directed to a much smaller, and more Francophone, audience.

A study undertaken by QAHN in 2007-2008 as part of that organization's Cemetery Heritage Inventory and Restoration Initiative, along with QAHN's publication, Cemetery Heritage in Quebec: A Handbook, were much in evidence. In fact, the handbook was referenced in Rémillard's talk, while the study was cited in a recent study of local cemeteries commissioned by the Coaticook MRC.

larger_img_6247.jpgSome of the themes raised by Rémillard were also addressed by QAHN back in 2008. Topics included some of the many problems faced by cemeteries today, such as vandalism, abandonment and lack of funds. There was also discussion of, among other things, municipal recognition of cemeteries as historic sites, and the importance of repairing damaged gravestones in a manner that is consistent with the stone's historic character.

Rémillard was quite vocal when it came to the cleaning of lichens from gravestones. She explained that since lichens are so slow growing, since they may actually help protect gravestones from the elements, and since cleaning stone will necessarily only be superficial, cleaning gravestones is more or less a waste of time, and may actually do more harm that good, especially if chemicals, pressure hoses or abrasives are used. "I advocate doing little of it or not at all," Rémillard said.

larger_img_6252.jpgRémillard urges cemetery custodians to document the information on gravestones, and if possible, to photograph the stones. "What we see one year," she said, "may not be there ten years from now." She added that there are techniques for photographing gravestones that do not involve cleaning or the application of paint (to highlight inscriptions). There are ways to get good contrast, including using mirrors.

As far as the repair of gravestones is concerned, Rémillard urges cemetery custodians to repair gravestones only if these interventions are reversible. "New products and methods," she cautioned, "often seem like a good idea when they first come on the market. But years down the road, they may prove to be not so good after all."

When undertaking repairs, she added, "we should always consider the choice of materials and the integrity of the stone and the graveyard. A good rule of thumb is that a repair should be reversible in case it does not work out."

larger_img_6276.jpgGraveyards should have fixed visitors' hours, according to the conservator. "Once the sun sets," she said, "people who go into a cemetery are not there to meditate on the dead." In other words, these people are up to no good, and the police may reasonably be alerted to their presence after dark.

Rémillard is a firm advocate of municipal citation. She believes that towns should make use of their power to declare local cemeteries (and other properties) historic sites. "We should cite them all," she said. "They are important green spaces and places of memory."

Rémillard acknowledges that some kinds of repairs require an expert, such as a stonecutter, a conservator, or someone who knows about different types of mortar. The lack of expertise at the grassroots level, and the diminishing pool of experienced (and competent) gravestone repairers, were key problems identified by QAHN in its 2008 study.

larger_img_6275.jpgAnother problem identified by QAHN, and one that Rémillard only briefly touched upon this week, was the vague wording of some aspects of the laws (there are at least four of them!) that govern the management of cemeteries in the province of Quebec.

In attendance at the conference in Coaticook, which was followed by a visit to two cemeteries in Barnston, were a handful of cemetery trustees and citizens, along with officials from the Ministry of Culture, the MRC and QAHN.

Participants said that they found the session informative. Coaticook MRC environmental technician Patrick Tobin, for example, said that "before this, I had very little knowledge of the issues related to cemetery heritage; so it was very useful."