John Sugden

Chilliwack’s history found in gravestones

Carman United Church Cemetery, Chilliwack

The cemetery at Carman United Church is not your typical, manicured cemetery.

The plots are misaligned, the lawn is pocked with divots and ridges, and the stones are mismatched, faded, some have corroded rust, some have become moss habitats.

After 100 years, this cemetery is oozing character.

On Sept. 25, Carman United Church is celebrating its cemetery’s centennial anniversary.

The hole-in-the-wall cemetery on the south side of Promontory Road was opened in 1911; two decades after Carman United Church (then a methodist church) was established.

“Some people call it a pauper’s cemetery,” says Shirley Dargatz, whose grandfather George Israel Thornton was one of the founding fathers of the church. “We call it a pioneer’s cemetery.”

When the cemetery was started back in 1911, it featured 12 acres of plot land. But over the years, the church has gradually sold off pieces in an effort to keep the land maintained.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church purchased one of the last parcels sold in the 1950s, and built a cemetery of their own right next door.

Even though the two cemeteries are separated only by three towering hemlock trees, their appearances are vastly different.

While St. Mary’s is almost perfectly symmetrical featuring clean rows and proportionate, ground-level headstones, Carman’s is more like your grandparent’s attic – with well-worned grass, headstone blemishes, and hidden treasures stashed every which way you turn.

It has upright square stones, obelisk stones, ground-level stones, and stones that go the length of the coffin; a practice common in the 1930s. It has modern stones, handmade stones, brass-trimmed stones, broken stones, and one – Jaime L. Jukes, 1934-2009 – covered in happy face stickers.

Happy in life. Peaceful in death, it reads.

One stone has a wooden cross planted next to it, another a cement bench, and another – Mike Allan, 1966-2000 – a mountain bike tire with a piece of card stock that reads: Ride in Peace.

Many are so faded, the only way of determining who the deceased were is by outlining the indented letters with your index finger.

The stories on the headstones, some explicitly told, some left to the imagination, are an education in the history of Chilliwack.

Walking through the grounds, you will pass names like Thornton, Watson, Wells, Bailey, Pearson, Newby – all old-time Chilliwack names, many now street names.

“Many of the people buried here were loyalist descendants,” says Dargatz.

You will see intricate stones, like those of Sui Lim (1918-1962) and Mary Chan Yee (1927-2004) that have brass trim around them and pictures of the deceased imprinted on them. Similar stones lay nearby; all the deceased of Chinese descent.

“There used to be a Chinatown coming into Chilliwack … from the Esso on Yale Road to where UFV is on Airport Road,” explains Dargatz. “When I was a kid, it was quite evident you were driving through Chinatown.”

The obelisk headstone of Reverend Thomas Wellington Hall, who passed away on Nov. 18, 1911, is the oldest headstone in the graveyard. Hall was one of the first reverends of the church, and the cemetery’s first interred.

After so many years, though, his tall, rose-speckled granite headstone had sunk down more than a foot into the soil. The stone was only recently pulled back above ground by Peter Van Der Maden, whose first wife Anne Marie is buried next to the reverend, and who has an “affinity” for the Carman cemetery.

“Every one of these stones has a story and you wonder what their story was all about,” says manager John Sugden, who often tours the grounds with a broom in hand, sweeping the stones clean as he tries to piece each story together.

He points to one of the stones with three names: Maisie Walters, who died in 1922, followed by “Dick and Ewie” who were killed in action in France. No other information is provided.

“My guess is the bodies of those men are not here, but someone cared about them so much, they wanted to memorialize their bodies with a stone, but I don’t really know,” says Sugden.

“Even the graves with no markers have a story. Did they not want to be remembered? Did they not have enough money for a marker? Did they have a wooden marker that deteriorated. Or were they just forgotten?”

With over 900 buried, plus an undetermined number of cremated ashes, and available plot land that has not yet been developed, Sugden says his imagination will be busy for many years to come.

The Carman United Church Cemetery 100-year celebration is on Sept. 25 at 10:30 a.m. at the church located at 7258 Vedder Road.

For more information contact the church at 604-858-3223 or by email at carman@uniserve.com.

kbartel@theprogress.com

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