The History of Death on Display

Fourth-year students explore changes in death and burial in Nova Scotia

History Class in Graveyard
Class is in the graveyard for Acadia history students.

It happens to everyone - death - and Acadia University students in Dr. Gillian Poulter's Canadian Public History seminar are learning firsthand the history of death and burial in Nova Scotia. Their findings will be on display at Acadia's Vaughan Memorial Library until December 3, with a public presentation there on Wednesday, December 1 from 1:30 p.m. until 4 p.m.

The exhibit includes information about the location of local burial sites and changing styles of grave markers.  The biographies of some of the notables buried in the Old Wolfville Burial Grounds are also told, along with a small display of documents and artifacts connected with them.  Other displays illustrate preparation of the body in the home and changes in burial practices, which came with the advent of the funeral parlour in the 20th century.

"This was not an easy project to research and the students all spent many hours researching in the Esther Clark Archives and gathering information from a number of local community members," Dr. Poulter says. "It certainly made us think about how we want to be buried!"

Using the Old Wolfville Burial Grounds at the base of Highland Avenue as a starting point, students researched changing death and burial practices in the local area. Their assignment was to create a display that would be both informative and appealing to the general public.

Acadia student Sam Howes studied the changes in gravestone design. "It became obvious just how much our view of death has changed," he says. "We have gone from having our stones covered with religious imagery to seeing stones with images that focus on our lives."

Similarly, classmate David Perusse researched some of the people interned in the local burial grounds, and wrote articles on them for the student newspaper, The Athenaeum. "I was able to gain great insight into not only the history of the graveyard, but also how that graveyard itself was reflective of the community's history."

Student Maria Leitch gained an appreciation for the work of curators at various historical sites. "My research made me realize how unaware many people are of the extensive history surrounding them and how often this leads to neglect."

The students says their research and interviews with individuals from Wolfville Historical Society, the Burial Grounds Care Society, the Kings County Museum, and White's Funeral Home, helped give them a new understanding of the process, and its significance.

"This project also made me realize the importance of funeral homes and directors in taking some of the burden off of the family following the loss of a loved one," says Zack Firlotte, who studied the preparation of the dead at home. Classmate Sarah Story agrees.

"Going through the process of 'doing' public history has allowed me to better understand the major challenges that curators at local historical sites face," she says. "The interviews I conducted have helped to break down my misperceptions about funeral directors and the 'death business,' which I now view in an entirely new and positive way."

The student research and displays were assisted by librarians and staff at Acadia's Vaughan Memorial Library.

For more information, contact:

Dr. Gillian Poulter
Associate Professor
Department of History & Classics
Tel: 902.585.1289


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