Beyond the Headstones: 5 Surprising Secrets to Discover in Cemeteries

Do you add cemetery stops to your vacation itinerary? If not, you might be missing out on some fascinating experiences!

Cemeteries are not just resting places for our loved ones. They are open-air art galleries and windows into history. Whether you’re a history buff, an art enthusiast, or simply curious about local legends, visiting a cemetery can be an unexpectedly enriching experience. Today, I want to share five intriguing discoveries to look out for on your next graveyard stroll.

Art

Photo: St. Jean Baptiste Cemetery, Earlton ON ©2023 Chantal Larochelle

Cemeteries are filled with beautiful examples of stone carvings, elaborate sculptures, and intricate architecture, often reflecting the popular styles of their time.

You might even come across works from famous artists, such as this angel sculpture by Rose-Aimée Bélanger. Bélanger, a renowned French-Canadian bronze sculptor best known for her statue “Les chuchoteuses/The Gossipers” in Montreal, created this piece to adorn the grave of her young son, who passed away in 1951.

Symbolism

Photo: Bronte Cemetery, Oakville ON ©2024 Chantal Larochelle

Every gravestone symbol and motif tells a story, offering a glimpse into the life and beliefs of the person it memorializes. For instance, a lamb often symbolizes a child gone too soon, while a sheaf of wheat can indicate a life well lived, typically aged 70 years or older.

Grave symbols form a visual language that reveals the beliefs and values of a community or area. A common symbol in one cemetery might be rare in another, reflecting the cultural and religious diversity of the region. When examining these symbols, pay close attention to small variations, as they can convey vastly different meanings. For example, a hand pointing upward represents the soul’s ascent to heaven, while a hand pointing downward often signifies a sudden death, a life plucked from the earth.

Read Chantal’s blog post on CEMETERY SYMBOLISM AND ICONOGRAPHY

History

Photo: Leith United Churchyard, Leith ON ©2023 Chantal Larochelle

Cemeteries are full of history, encompassing both everyday people and prominent figures. Some cemeteries date back centuries, providing a direct link to the area’s early settlers. Many cemeteries offer guided tours or have historic plaques that highlight notable graves and events associated with the area.

In Canada, you can visit the graves of noteworthy politicians, entertainers, and artists, including the Canadian Van Gogh—Tom Thomson. Thomson’s life and death are shrouded in mystery. After his body was found in Canoe Lake, he was initially buried in Mowat Cemetery in Algonquin Park. His family later had his body exhumed and reburied in Leith, Ontario. However, there is a persistent rumor that he was never exhumed and still rests in Mowat Cemetery.

Hear more about Tom Thomson’s story: 

Grave Goods

Photo: St Jude's Cemetery, Oakville ON ©2024 Chantal Larochelle

You might also come across grave goods during your cemetery visits. Grave goods are items left at a grave by loved ones as a way to pay their respects. These items can range from flowers and candles to more personal keepsakes like photographs or toys. An empty beer can or a model race car can hold special significance, offering a unique glimpse into the personality of the deceased. This tradition serves as a moving reminder of the connections between the living and the dead, and it’s beautiful to see what loved ones leave behind.

Ghost Stories

Photo: Torrance Union Cemetery, Torrance ON ©2024 Chantal Larochelle

A blog post for The Haunted Walk would not be complete without a mention of ghost stories or local legends that sometimes surround cemetery grounds. Ontario’s cemeteries have their fair share of spooky tales, ghostly apparitions, and eerie occurrences. Ghost stories often stem from tragic events of the past, and whether you believe in the supernatural or not, they add an extra layer of dark history.

Torrance Cemetery in Torrance, Ontario, is reputed to be haunted and draws in curious visitors seeking their own encounters with the unknown. This site, home to a supposedly haunted family crypt, is rich with curious and creepy tales that intrigue and mystify all who visit.

The Haunted Walk offers many tours with connections to burial grounds, including the Original Haunted Walk in Ottawa and Kingston, Ghosts of the Village at Black Creek in Toronto, and most notably, Tales from the Mausoleum at Ottawa’s Beechwood Cemetery. These tours provide a unique opportunity to explore the eerie and mysterious sides of these historic sites.

Ghost Tours & Paranormal Adventures

Join us for a safe & spooky night out in Kingston, Ottawa, or Toronto!

Final Thoughts

As you can see, cemeteries are more than just places of mourning and reflection—they are open-air art galleries, museums, and archives of history. Whether you are drawn in by beautiful sculptures, grave symbolism, rich history, unique grave goods, or spooky ghost stories, each cemetery visit offers a chance to connect life and death in a profound and memorable way.

So, the next time you find yourself near a cemetery, take the opportunity to explore. You never know what fascinating discoveries await you in these serene and historic spaces.

Thanks for reading! For any questions, please free to email me. You can also find me on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Chantal Larochelle

Guest writer Chantal Larochelle is a graphic designer and photographer based in Sudbury, Ontario, fascinated by cemeteries and graveyards. For over 15 years, she has used her photography and blog to showcase the rich details of gravestones, their symbolism, poignant epitaphs, and the mementos left behind by loved ones.