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Day 13 … Cemetery insights

8smAs Barrie and I stroll towards the Ritchie Memorial Chapel at Yarmouth Mountain Cemetery, the bells peal six times. I’m somewhat relieved, as I thought we were late for our 6 p.m. meeting with John Wainwright. After the usual hellos, John asks how long a tour we want. Assuming that cemeteries are about as exciting as stale bread, I suggest an hour …  thinking that’s long enough to be nodding at headstones.

Our date was with John Wainwright, chair of the board of directors that oversees the cemetery and a chap well known for his knowledge and passion for Mountain Cemetery. Jack Dease, site manager, also joined us. Before I knew it, two hours had passed and we could have stayed for an hour or two more. We only left because hordes of mosquitoes drove us out at dusk. Nutshell: cemeteries are fascinating places to visit.

Here are a few insights gleaned from the tour, but first, some background information.

According to newspaper reports back in 1859, members of the Yarmouth Free Discussion Club held a conflab. The question of the day was:  Is it sound policy, or compatible with reason, to continue burying the dead in the centre of the town?  (The practice at the time was to bury the dead in what is now Frost Park on Main Street, and, also across the street behind what is now the Yarmouth Library.) The consensus was that it was … a grave obstacle as regards health and convenience … and it would be prudent to discontinue this practice. Hence, 11 acres was selected in the back of town known as ‘the mountain.’ More land was added later; now there’s a total for 40 acres allotted to the cemetery although only 20 are currently used.

2smShortly after the cemetery was set up, the town fathers brought Horace Cleveland over from the U.S. to design the layout. Described as a preservationist by nature, Cleveland’s legacy includes designing the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord MA, the boulevard system in Omaha, NE, and the Roger Williams Park in Providence, RI, to name just a few.  He charged $8 a day for nine days, and $72 for the main plan.

In 1923, David A. Ritchie donated the chapel. (By the way, a native of Yarmouth, Ritchie invented and patented the process for making spiral pipe.) This chapel—built from local granite—was the first mortuary chapel in Canada. The interior is made from Douglas fir, pine, oak and brick. Later, several stained glass windows were donated; early evening (or early morning) light shows them off beautifully.

Point of interest: the chapel has a unique water-powered hydraulic lift for lowering caskets to the vaults below. Alas, with the advent of funeral parlours, there have not been many services in the Chapel, although burials here are still de rigueur as the cemetery is well known and non-denominational. I felt that there are good spirits in this chapel and was happy to hear that someone is considering getting married here.

4 bestsmAnother aside: in the 10-year period during 1989-1999 local cremations tripled, so in keeping with the trend, the cemetery’s board of directors decided to develop a columbarium. John Waingright is pictured here next to one section. Creeped me out to see friends names carved out on the boxes who are not dead yet!

Many other, more pleasant things, stayed with me after my visit. For starters, there are two lovely (and large) spaces that were earmarked as “indigent reserves.”  The original one in the old part of the cemetery is identified by a large monument that reads: “Erected by the Town of Yarmouth in respect of the Ones that are Buried Here.”  I found this to be so touching and dignified.

6smThe first section filled up quickly, and includes several unidentified persons who lost their lives in shipwrecks. However, with the advent of Social Services, the need is no longer there for the town to assume responsibility for burying those who cannot afford to do so, hence there’s lots of space in the second section.

Other areas have also been reserved for specific groups, such as the Agudath Achim Society, the local Jewish community. It’s easy to find with its wrought iron gates featuring the Star of David. I noticed several small stones on one of the graves—an indication that a loved one has dropped by to pay respects.

One lot was bought and presented to the Old Ladies Home Society (which still operates a senior’s home called Sunset Terrace).

Eventually, we visited a section where veterans and RCMP and buried. It was interesting to see how the headstones are all the same size, and use the same format on the stones—regardless of rank. The emblem at the top of the headstone denotes what branch the men or women belong to: Army = maple leaf; Navy = anchor; Air Force = wings; RCMP = buffalo.

5smThe gravestones (especially in the old section) come in all sizes and shapes. I especially like the old ones with unusual and lovely carvings like this one.

All along the paths, John told us stories. He was quick to point out: “There are almost 10,000 people buried here. That’s not even counting the 500 or so ‘memorials’… these  are for people who died elsewhere and could not be brought back home. For example, there could be people here who died during the wars or losses at sea. When you consider that each grave has a story, there are thousands of stories here.”

He showed us the monument of Hon. Herbert Huntington  (1800-1851) whose epitaph was written by Hon. Joseph Howe, and an imposing monument marking the gravesite of Bowman B. Law, an MP from Yarmouth who died in the fire that destroyed the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa in 1916.

dowley headstone 1 (2)smThen, there are small graves of two sisters Ella and Ninetta Hutchinson, the first two burials in the cemetery. Some graves have simple messages such as a small white obelisk, which reads, “Little Eddy, My Baby.” In the newer section is a memorial stone to John and Agnes Dowley, parents to famed folk artist Maud Lewis. Her two brothers, Victor and George are also named on the stone.

John encouraged us to let our gaze sweep over the cemetery from the early burials to the present. Several things were striking. First, the old part of the cemetery has tons of green space as some families bought large lots yet there may only be one stately monument. There are several obelisks, which often were ‘memorials.’

7smAlso, the old part has the most moss growing on the gravestones as the material used was more porous and not polished like it is today. Finally, the old part has very few flowers as relatives are also long gone or families have moved on. Conversely, in the newer section t to the East, you’ll see that the gravestones are closer together, very little moss appears on the stones, and there are lots of flowers—especially begonias. “The deer don’t bother them as much,” John said.

Before we left, I visited my father’s grave. W. M. Phinney (Willoughby Messenger Phinney). I’m not sure why, but I’ve only been here once since he died in 1967. I was happy to stand by his gravesite again in the old part of the cemetery, on top of a hillside close to some big old trees. He’s buried in a family plot with his parents who were born in 1875, and with Papa’s first wife, Helen Roberston Phinney (1902-1942). I know nothing about Helen save I understand she died in “the asylum” (the Nova Scotia Hospital) in Halifax. She was only 40. I would love to know more about her … and my grandparents whom I never met. I’ll be back before another 50 years pass by. I’ll also visit my mother’s grave, in Gavelton. Soon.

9smBy the way, this photo shows the area where the veterans are buried. Some of the headstones are sunk and will be raised. The big monument was erected by the Great War Veterans Association. The GWVA was founded in 1917 but merged with other groups in 1925 to form the Canadian Legion.

Just before leaving the cemetery, John pointed to a handsome headstone. A person from Yarmouth had lived/died in another province, but his family made arrangements for the body to be sent to one of the local funeral homes and for him to be buried in this cemetery. Family members then flew into Yarmouth, and all gathered for the last farewell.

After the internment, the funeral director inquired of the person who’d made the arrangements, “Who might be taking care of payment?”

“Oh! You were supposed to receive a note saying that the cheque was in the jacket pocket on the corpse,” was the reply.

Presumably the cheque was still in the dead man’s pocket, six feet under. Everyone had a good laugh and, yes, the funeral expenses were taken care of pronto.

OK. It’s your turn. Any cemetery stories?

ps: There is a fabulous brochure about this cemetery with tons of information and a walking tour noting many points of interest that I mentioned. Just heard from Jack Dease: you can pick one up at the Visitor Information Center (at corner of Main and Forest St.) and at the museums in Yarmouth. You can also pick one up at the office, located in behind the chapel  further towards the back.


  1. Marilyn Moore Marilyn Moore
    July 20, 2015    

    I love walking in Mountain Cemetery – it is the most beautiful cemetery I have seen. It is so peaceful. Both my parents were buried from the Ritchie Memorial Chapel. Thank you Sandra for providing all the information about Mountain Cemetery.

    • July 20, 2015    

      Thanks for sharing this information Marilyn! Dearly appreciated. There is a GREAT pamphlet about the cemetery that John gave us. It has tons of information + a self guided tour. I’ll try and find out where the brochures are.

      • July 20, 2015    

        You can get a brochure at the office on site at the cemetary.

      • Jack Dease Jack Dease
        July 21, 2015    

        There are brochures available at the Visitor Information Center at Main and Forest and at the museums in Yarmouth. Great article Sandra , you always have interesting stories.

        • July 21, 2015    

          This is GREAT news Jack! I’ll put a note on FB and add something at end of this story to that effect. Thanks again!

      • July 22, 2015    

        Marilyn, I just heard from Jack Dease who says that people can get brochures at Visitor’s Centre (corner Main and Forest) and the Museums in town.

  2. Margaret Ommanney Margaret Ommanney
    July 20, 2015    

    Fascinating Sandra! Enjoyed this. Someone told me the cemetery had been designed by the same man who designed Central Park … guess that was wrong info.

    • July 20, 2015    

      From what I’ve read Margaret, Cleveland bid on the design contract for Central Park but lost out although the one that DID get the contract had many elements that Cleveland had planned to have in his design. But I’d have to do more research on this to be sure. There’s a lot of information about Cleveland, his life and accomplishments, on the net. Thanks for the comment!

  3. July 20, 2015    

    Oh lovely. I felt the same way with my tour: how could I possibly spend more than an hour here? But, as we got going, this place of the dead for so full of life with all the stories. I plan to go back with a good book and pic nic in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant. Lovely job, Sandy Pines. ox

    • July 20, 2015    

      You’ve captured it all by saying ” … this place of the dead so full of life …”

      And I LOVE the idea of having a picnic at Mountain Cemetery. Brilliant Mae Belle!

  4. MinolaGoodwin MinolaGoodwin
    July 20, 2015    

    so enjoyed this history lesson and embarrassed to say I have family resting there and have not taken time to pay my respects!

    • July 20, 2015    

      Never too late Minola! And, if you are not sure where they are buried, go to the office in the back of the cemetery. They have listings of every single burial there and can easily point you in the right direction!

  5. Linda Glass Linda Glass
    July 20, 2015    

    Sandra, I enjoyed reading the story of your cemetery visit. Isn’t it a shame that so many people find cemeteries so unpleasant. I live next to one and stroll through it quite often even though I don’t really know anyone who is buried there. I have taken my grandchildren there many times over the years and by the time they were old enough to understand what a cemetery was they were comfortable with it.

    • July 20, 2015    

      What a smart approach Linda, to take your grandchildren to a cemetery. I’m sure it’s been fodder for great discussions and learning opportunities for them. I’m sure we shy away from them because of the “unknown” factor or it may be morbid. But death is such a natural thing. We should feel comfortable with this. Thanks for your comments!

  6. Jennie Morrow Jennie Morrow
    July 21, 2015    

    I love your father’s name, Willoughby Messenger Phinney. It sounds like he should be a character in a children’s book. Thanks for the info on Mountain Cemetery. Now here’s something I’ve always wondered…where’s the mountain?

    • July 21, 2015    

      Our second son is named Willoughby Luke MacGregor. I love that name. But he bypasses the first name and goes by Luke. The mountain is really a high hill. As you go into the cemetery, to the left is the “mountain” … compared to the rest of the town proper, which is very flat (downtown) that hill in the 1800s must have seemed like a mountain. Also, the grade of the property increases towards the rear end (up by the Mariner’s Centre). Or at least that’s my “best guess” about it all. i.e. could be making that up.

  7. Ruthie AllenHamilton Ruthie AllenHamilton
    July 21, 2015    

    I too enjoy – almost seems like the wrong word to use – enjoy wandering they cemeteries, imagining the lives of those buried there. I have always found them to be places of peace and serenity.
    I love reading about your July Journey! Thank you for sharing with us!

    • July 21, 2015    

      Thanks for popping into view Ruthie! Now that I’m “hooked” on cemeteries I find that I am looking for them, and for sure will be taking the time to stroll around a lot more!

  8. Arthur Berry Arthur Berry
    January 29, 2017    

    My great grand parents and children are in there. my mom, dad sister and brother are there. and a lot of my friends. I enjoy when I am home in the summer walking in there and reading all the stones.. they keep the gronds up to par.

    • February 3, 2017    

      Hello Arthur and thanks for commenting! It’s a beautiful cemetery for your family to be in and it’s nice that you can visit when you are in Yarmouth!

  9. Sandra Eldridge Arsenault Sandra Eldridge Arsenault
    November 8, 2022    

    Thanks so much for the interesting article about the cemetery. It really is a place of history, beauty and peace in Yarmouth.

    • January 15, 2023    

      Just saw your comment today … thanks for popping into view! Agree on all counts!

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  1. Day 24 … Cemetery tricks | sandraphinney.com on August 13, 2015 at 12:04 pm

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