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Exploring Rural Cemeteries of the West
By Steve Johnson, May 24, 2000
Perhaps the dream of many cemetery aficionados is to take a several month vacation into the back country searching and visiting rural cemeteries. They'd pack up their car (or truck), loaded with maps, camera equipment, and beef jerky, and follow their way up dirt roads of farm towns and mountain villages. They'd sample the cafe grub, visit local museums, and listen to the locals tell their stories.
At a Glance
Number of Pages: 128
Date Published: January 15, 2000
Number of Photographs: 125
Reading Level: easy
Randy Adams, has been doing just that for the last several years, and has described his journeys in "Eternal Prairie". This book, filled with over one hundred color and b/w photographs of tombstones and cemeteries, records the author's adventures in the Canadian Prairie, visiting the cemeteries of small and abandoned towns.
But Adams does more than describe the cemeteries he visits, he shares his knowledge of history and religion to give the reader an understanding of cemetery and religious symbolism, as well as provide historical references that tie into the crafting of cemetery markers.
Throughout his journeys, Adams encounters grave markers of every sort imaginable, and somehow, seems to see past the material designs and instead, interpret the symbolic markings and explain their meanings as brought forth into the Canadian Prairie from the old world. For example, he describes the three-pronged fleur-de-lis on the ends of an iron cross at the remains of the St. Henry Kronsberg Memorial near Dysart, SK:
"But there was no doubting the fleur-de-lis - a favourite symbol used by blacksmiths, and one that had traveled far. Although the three prongs of the fleur-de-lis have come to represent the Trinity, the flower itself has a much longer history. Fleur-de-lis is another name for iris, one the families of the herbaceous flowering plants Iridaceae, of the order Liliales .There was also a Greek goddess named Iris whose duty it was to lead the souls of women to the Elysian Fields - the dwelling place of the blessed after death - thus the Greeks planted purple irises on the graves of women."
In the Chapter, "Timeless Traditions", Adams notes the ethnic diversity of the Canadian Prairie, and describes their traditions as expressed through their grave markers. He then takes the reader back through history, into the Stone Age, into Ancient Greece, and into the Roman Empire to discuss some of the earliest burial practices. Then, he returns us to the present to show us how those practices carried over in today's traditions.
In the Chapter, "A Storied Land", Adams points out that there is more to a cemetery than the grave markers, and reminds us that the people buried in the graves all had stories to tell. In one such story, he describes Emil Maze, who was buried in the cemetery at Cherhill, AB. Emil was accused of shooting and killing the wife of a store owner. Emil had run off into the woods. People had hunted him, and finally found him dead, leaning up against a tree. Some thought it was suicide, others thought it was murder. Today, no one still knows.
In another chapter, "The Journey is Everything", he chronicles his adventures with his friend Harry, as they cruised the Saskatchewan prairie in "Jimmy", a 1963 GMC pickup, with a huge house-like camper, and pulling a motorized tricycle. With their maps to guide them, they visit small towns, visiting and photographing the cemeteries, and retiring to the campgrounds to play cards.
Eternal Prairie reminds us that there is more to recording a cemetery than collecting the names of persons. But that each person has a story, and all the people represent a history. The artwork and inscriptions on the grave markers have meaning, or at least, represent traditions carried over through the centuries. Thus, a cemetery is a memorial to our lives, a remembrance of our traditions, and that by being placed into the ground, we return to our origins.
Eternal Prairie is a book that all cemetery lovers will enjoy.