Earlier this month, a special ceremony took place at Mount Hermon Cemetery in Quebec City when 80 small caskets were buried. The caskets contained the remains of 204 unknown people, likely British immigrants or first-generation Canadians, who died between 1772 and 1848.
This burial puts an end to a story that began about 15 years ago when workers uncovered a number of skeletons buried in St. Matthew’s Cemetery, the oldest remaining cemetery in Quebec City.
St. Matthew’s Cemetery in Quebec City is now a park. 2012. Photo: François Laflamme.
Thousands buried in 18th and 19th centuries
St. Matthew’s cemetery, located within the city’s walls, was established in 1771 and it is the burial place of many of the earliest English settlers in Canada, including Queen Victoria’s half-brother Robert Wood.
An estimated 6,000 to 10,000 Anglicans and Presbyterians were buried in this cemetery between 1772 and 1860. As in most cemeteries from that period, the majority of the deceased were buried in unmarked graves, although today there are still 314 tombstones in the cemetery bearing 518 inscriptions. Some of the tombstones had been removed several years ago to make way for the convention centre.
Unfortunately, a large number of people were buried in St. Matthew’s with no record of their name. To this day, they remain unknown.
After they died, their bodies were wrapped in cloth and buried one on top of the other without coffins. In all, there would have been six or seven layers of bodies, likely separated by wooden planks.
In 1860, the cemetery was closed because citizens were worried about the possibility of diseases spreading.
Today, St. Matthew’s is a park in the heart of Quebec City on rue Saint-Jean. Thousands of tourists walk by it every year.
St. Matthew’s Cemetery, Quebec City. 2012. Photo: Malimage.
After the skeletons were discovered, an archaeological dig took place. Reginald Auger and James Woollet, both archaeologists and professors in the Department of Historical Sciences at Université Laval, wanted the remains to be stored in their campus laboratory in order to conduct bioarchaeology research.
The Anglican bishop of Quebec gave his approval for the research, provided it be completed by 2015 and the remains re-buried.
Decade-long research reveals health of deceased
More than a dozen graduate and post-doctoral students conducted extensive research on the remains for about ten years.
The analysis of the remains indicated that many of the deceased had suffered from deficiency illnesses, such as rickets and infectious diseases. A majority of the 204 people had died between the ages of 18 and 35.
Although the remains have been re-buried, research will continue. Three-dimensional X-rays taken of the bones will remain in a permanent database for future analysis.
Because of this research, it is likely much more is now known about the 204 deceased than most of the others buried in St. Matthew’s. If only we knew their names.
More information about this project can be found, in French, in the article, Dernier repos, in the university’s journal.
If planning a trip to Quebec City, take note that the cemetery is almost next to the fine foods shop, J.A. Moisan, which is probably the oldest grocery store in North America. The store opened in 1871, 11 years after the cemetery closed.