Looking Back: In information age, fewer records of our deaths

Fewer obits, gravemarkers, mean people die without a trace to history

This is not to refer to any specific life recently lost, but to the practice of memorializing.

In our rapidly changing culture, traditional practices that were once seen as a requirement, no matter how expensive they were, are now seen as optional – not only by the family, but also by the person who would have been memorialized.

Not wanting to burden their family with the expenses, they opt for no service and no memorial and are simply cremated.

Sadly, the acknowledgement of their lives is also being set aside.

For people who become famous – or infamous – newspapers and the internet will help keep their memory alive.

But for the average person whose quiet heroism or generosity is known only to family and friends, how do we recall them?

The Maple Ridge Museum and Archives gets requests from all over the world regarding people who have passed away – some many years ago and others quite recently.

It is always easier to find the older deaths as for the most part, an informative obituary was published.

For some of our pioneer citizens – like Hector Ferguson or Sam Robertson – the obituary could exceed 70 column inches.

But as we get past the year 2000, it is increasingly difficult to find any information with no obituary and no official grave site becoming ever more common.

The death certificate may come to be the only source of information.

We recently had an interesting exchange with the Seattle Genealogical Society, which sent us a package of First World War related materials for a man named Thomas Gracey.

Since we have a Thomas Gracey of about the right age in our cemetery, the society thought it was him.

In the course of determining that our Thomas Gracey was not their Thomas Gracey, we learned that our Thomas has no story at all.

He was born in Ireland, came to Canada at some point and fetched up at Allco Infirmary, where he died.

All we have is a death certificate showing no next of kin or even a friend to sign it.

We will likely never know any more about him – a sad fact.

This summer, Maple Ridge Museum and Archives was the sponsor of two events in our cemetery – a headstone cleanup, then tours by Maple Ridge Historical Society president Erica Williams.

All were well attended by enthusiastic people.

It is clear that the cemetery as a community record is a valuable asset, but what of all the people who are not included?

It is very easy to understand the financial pressures on families these days. But the memorializing process is important. It seals people into the community memory.

If you’ve lost someone close, take some time to write a story about them – who they were, what they liked, whose lives they touched – and maybe add a few photos, and give that package to your community archives.

You will do a great service for the community and for the family history researchers of the future.

Val Patenaude is director of the Maple Ridge Museum

 

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