Living Connections with the Dead: An Anthropological Exploration of Relics Cared for by the Roman Catholic Diocese, London, Ontario.
Sydney Durham, Naomi Nakahodo, Natalie Stephens, Ashley Ward, and Kaylee Woldum
This monograph is the class project for a course entitled “Mortuary Archaeology”. The goal of the course is to engage students with the cross-cultural and deep temporal examination of how different societies deal with death.
The project arose from conversations between the course instructor, Andrew Nelson, and the archivist for the Roman Catholic Diocese of London, Debra Majer, in August of 2021. After an initial meeting with Debra on February 9th, the students began the process of building project proposals surrounding the theme of sacred relics. After approval by Nelson and Majer, the five students from Western University started their individual projects from February to April of 2022. During this time, the students communicated with both Nelson and Majer regarding their projects, two of which included the direct analysis of some of the Diocese’s relics. In this sense, this volume is a mix of both theoretical work and experimental approaches in the study of sacred relics from the Roman Catholic Church.
Mortuary archaeology is the archaeological study of death and burial. In North America, the anthropological, cross-cultural, and deep temporal perspectives are employed (cf. Martin et al. 2013a). The myriad ways that societies deal with death are the product of complex and intertwined social, economic, and environmental factors such as class, gender, ethnicity, subsistence practice, and social complexity, to name a few. Therefore, the study of mortuary rituals sheds important light on social complexity and organization. This makes it an excellent topic for an advanced course in a Department of Anthropology. The research described in this report is the result of a group project for an honours level undergraduate and graduate course entitled Anthropology 4493G/9104B; Advanced Special Topics in Anthropology/Advanced Bioarchaeology; Mortuary Archaeology, which was taught in the Winter Semester of 2020.
Beyond genealogy, the historical and natural landscapes of cemeteries reveal much about the past. Not only do the stones tell us about disease and mortality, but they reflect broader historical and societal trends in Canada. Able to afford more expensive plots on hilltops, the wealthy often chose ostentatious markers which tower over the more modest stones of the middle class located on lower ground. Maple trees represent strength and endurance in the face of grief, but their leaves carved on war graves act as national emblems. Use of Roman and Greek architectural elements on grave markers and mausolea reflect the popularity of neoclassicism in nineteenth century art. The general lack of maiden names on the early graves of women records their subordinate position to their husbands. An epitaph tells us about the deceased’s spiritual or poetic preferences while a masonic symbol indicates the dead’s fraternal ties. Immigrants honour their origins through imagery such as Scottish thistles and Celtic crosses, or by inscribing their birthplace on their gravestones. Inscriptions in mother tongues other than English demonstrate that cultural differences are as important in death as in life. Cemeteries have always been for the living as well as the dead. Today, Woodland Cemetery inspires photographers, provides recreational green space in the city, and preserves local history through walking tours and gravestone restoration. Each year the Master’s in Public History students at Western University collaborate with a community partner to complete a project that presents history to a public audience. In 2017-18, students researched the history of London’s Woodland Cemetery. 140 years after its creation in 1879, it is a fitting time to examine its significance to London’s cultural and natural heritage. xix