Angels and Skeletons Watch You Sleep at Halifax’s Old Burying Grounds

Halifax is an old city that tries hard to strike a balance between embracing its past and not being afraid of its future. The Old Burying Ground, located on the corner of Spring Garden Road and Barrington Street in the middle of the central business district, is an important piece of the old city.

Many Haligonians would admit they’ve never stepped foot in it.

Halifax Old Burying Ground
It’s this spooky during the day.

It’s creepy, with sunken patches and erratic paths. Some of the headstones are covered up, for their protection, some have been patched back together. It’s worthy of a wander, however, because the stones are fascinating. I walked in the graveyard for the first time after living in Halifax for 10 years.

Halifax Old Burying Ground
Here lies Richard.

I have a decent amount of cemetery experience, both here and abroad, but I was delighted by what I found in the Burying Grounds. I simply wasn’t expecting something like this:

Halifax Old Burying Ground
If this doesn’t convince you to be good in this life, what will?

Or this:

Halifax Old Burying Ground
Sleep tight!

This sort of funerary imagery was very typical of the era. Carolyn Theriault has written a wonderfully detailed post about the Old Burying Ground and the images found on the old, fragile headstones:

But a closer look yields a wealth of imagery and symbolism: urns, plain and beribboned (the soul), winged effigies or cherubs (soul in flight), death’s heads (mortality, penance) and winged death’s heads (ascension into heaven), bones (decay), Masonic symbols (fraternal association), stars (divine guidance), suns (soul rising to heaven), moons (rebirth), birds (peace, messengers of god), poppies (sleep), six-pointed stars (creation), upright hourglasses (passing of time) and hourglasses spilled (life interrupted), willow trees and branches (mourning), and in one case, a coat of arms. It should be noted that although there is a canon of interpretation for these symbols, not all scholars agree to their exact meaning. It has been noted that the iconography of the earlier period (skeletal remains) reflect a more puritanical contempt for the world of the flesh, while the cherubs that followed illustrate a rise in romanticism with its attendant desire of immortality. During the 19th century, the belief of man’s supremacy and individuality (as witnessed with advances in science and technology) translates itself as self-interest – the overriding emotion portrayed is now grief at one’s own death (willow trees, urns).

Needless to say, there is nothing I can add. For visitors to our city, it is a must-do, and for regular residents like me, it’s a must-go-back.

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  1. You are right, I lived in Halifax 30 years and have only ever ventured as far as peaking over the fence. It is a fantastically old graveyard, the best kind. There is another great old grave yard in Dartmouth next to the Dartmouth commons, on the hill along victoria road down, with the best bit at the bottom of the hill.


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