To get to kindergarten, I had to walk across a bridge that spanned the Grand River in Paris, Ontario. The footbridge was a rusty old train trestle with a long stretch of corrugated iron for foot traffic. The sides were barred but open — a glance down in any direction led to the sight of the river below.
The first day of school — the thrill of seeing friends again; dressing in a carefully chosen outfit, debated and assessed endlessly in consultation with sisters and friends; a book bag filled with binders, pages empty in anticipation, pencils sharpened, erasers intact; a nervous, fluttering heart. It is the beginning.
I never looked forward to the first day of school, it always made me anxious.
A new school year meant a new teacher to contemplate. Given that I attended the same school from kindergarten to grade seven, and there was only one class of each grade, and several teachers had taught the parents of my classmates, I knew who that teacher would be. I had a long time to ruminate on the stories I’d heard long before I crossed the threshold of their classroom. Each teacher came with a foreboding shadow. Mostly, the tales weren’t good, and some were eye popping.
I don’t recall much about my first day of elementary school back in Edmonton, Alberta — only what my mom tells me I did. But starting anything new always feels the same to me, so I thought I’d describe my first day at cemetery school, which I can clearly remember. That’s right. I recently enrolled in cemetery school.
At Queensview Elementary, grade-six students are required to complete a community service unit as part of their school curriculum. Derek Knowles-Collier was sick when groups were assigned, so he is stuck with what’s leftover: landscape and repair duty at the local cemetery. Since the loss of his young friend, Derek has recurring nightmares, and he is afraid that spending time in a cemetery will make it even harder for him to sleep through the night. It’s a relief, therefore, when his group’s lessons on all aspects of cemetery care are so interesting and strange that Derek just doesn’t have time to dwell on his experience with death.
What inspired Jessica Scott Kerrin to write The Spotted Dog Last Seen? Read on to find out.
I live in downtown Halifax, and every day I walk to work. I pass by two or sometimes three historic cemeteries on my way there, and then again on my way home, depending on my route or the errands that I have to run. These cemeteries are all surrounded by black cast-iron fences, and I would march by them like so much wallpaper. It never occurred to me to go into them. But then one day, I did.
On a whim, or a hunch, or perhaps I was just plain curious, I walked through the yawning iron gate of the oldest of the three, the Old Burying Ground on Barrington Street, which was open to the public from dawn to dusk. The plaque on the gate also told me that this was a nationally designated heritage site and that the oldest grave marker dated back to 1749, the year that Halifax was founded.
I didn’t get very far before I hesitated. I felt like Alice in Wonderland, who fell down a rabbit hole.
What were these different types of stones I was surrounded by, covered with lichen and eroding at different rates? Why were some stones grouped together? Why were the stones mostly facing the same way? Why did some stones look like simple church doors but fancier ones stood like above-ground tombs? And what did all those strange carved symbols mean? Sure, the skulls and crossbones were easy to interpret, but what about the bent tree, the compass, the winged hourglass tipped on its side?
And then there were the words I read over and over as I moved from row to row — memory, departed, body, sacred, perished – all chiseled in different fonts by skilled hands.
I walked from stone to stone — each one different, each one unique, like the people buried beneath. Many featured carved faces — soul effigies as I later learned. Some of those faces were peaceful, some were sleeping, some looked surprised, and a few appeared to be happy, even amused.
And then, something stopped me dead in my tracks: a double grave marker meant for a couple, a husband and wife. He obviously died first. I read the inscription:
To the Memory of James Moody who departed this life on the 26th of August, 1796, aged 33 years, 5 months and 9 days. His stone also read that he had been an affectionate husband, tender parent, lived respected and died lamented.
And then I looked on the other side. It was completely blank. What happened to your wife, James Moody? I asked out loud.
I stood to listen for an answer. All I heard was the rustle of leaves, a tapestry of sighs.
I realized that these rare and contemplative places are a treasury rich in heritage artifacts. They are wonderful outdoor museums worthy of any school trip. And in this place, this historic site that tries so hard to freeze time and space, I decided to tell a story.