Union Cemetery bridges history through death

Death can sometimes be unpredictable just like the weather, according to Ian Merritt, Supervisor of Union Cemetery Operations.

Union Cemetery was established in 1837 and is located at the corner of King Street and Thornton Road. The cemetery spans 31 acres while more than half of it is nearly 180 years old.

Oshawa’s Union Cemetery is described as a “quiet and worthy resting place for the dead,” in a booklet titled, By-Laws, Rules and Regulations of the Union Cemetery Company, 1875.

In 1837, the first 19 acres of land in the south-west corner was originally a Presbyterian burying ground.

This land was rightfully named “Thornton’s Burying Ground” after Robert M. Thornton, a Secessionist Minister. He was the first Presbyterian minister in the area and preached at the Presbyterian wooden church erected in the cemetery.

“Thornton’s Burying Grounds” was used by both townships of Whitby and Oshawa. It expanded in 1875 after 12 neighbouring acres was purchased to accommodate the growing community.

The combined 31 acres of land made it the largest cemetery in Oshawa, according to archives provided by Oshawa Museum archivist, Jennifer Weymark.

It was renamed to Oshawa Union Cemetery and designed by a landscape architect named Henry A. Engelhardt.

The design contains twelve sections; A, B, C, D, E, F, G, I, J, K, L and X.

Merritt says he first entered the funeral and memorial business when he was a student in high school but has been the supervisor at Union Cemetery for a little over a year.

He stresses the importance of “encouraging healthy discussion with family members about their preferences and wishes” of how to be laid to rest.

Today, Union Cemetery’s services include the sales of plots, niches for cremated remains, monuments and markers, transfer of internment rights and guided tours for groups and class trips.

These services are provided from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., Monday to Friday.

The cemetery is open to the public from “dawn ‘till dusk”, according to Merritt. In the warmer months, some members of the public walk or ride their bikes through the cemetery on the paved paths.

The air in the cemetery is peaceful, with the distant sound of wind chimes, and local wildlife like geese, squirrels and sometimes racoons.

Merritt says some of the most interesting things about the cemetery is “its history and local connection”.

Oshawa Museum’s Lisa Terech, Community Engagement co-ordinator, has been attracting the locals to the cemetery by introducing Scenes from the Cemetery.

The Scenes of the Cemetery is a different, interesting and engaging way to explore history. Rather than a traditional guided tour, a group is led by a guide in costume.

Heather Sessions (centre) portraying Adelaide McLaughlin outside the McLaughlin mausoleum, during the 2016 Scenes from the Cemetery. Photo credit: Lisa Terech

The actor portraying the dead is seen beside the grave stone or memorial site.

“We didn’t reinvent any wheels, I will say that,” Terech says with a laugh and a smile. “I have known that the little cemetery in Peterborough has done something very similar…The idea of that has always been in my mind.”

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Terech says with the help of Regional and City Coun. for Ward 4, Rick Kerr, Scenes from the Cemetery was able to establish its theatrical element.

“It really kind of came about when I sat down with (Kerr) about something else,” Terech says. When she brought up the idea, she says his “eyes just lit up.”

She says thanks to Kerr, the “ball got rolling.” He is the creative director for the event and sits down with Terech to discuss which characters will be featured. He then makes connections with the actors.

“What’s great is the actors are responsible for researching their characters and coming up with their own script,” Terech explains. “So, the actors then have got their own kind of sense of the person.”

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As for the cemetery’s history—part of it is Merritt’s office.

The small, yellow brick building inside of the main cemetery entrance is 85 years old. Although Merritt resides there for his daily responsibilities, the building was originally used as a funeral chapel.

Thornton is buried in the north section of the original cemetery, south of section L. Engelhardt was laid to rest in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto.

While the original founder is laid to rest in Union Cemetery, there are many other prominent figures and families, such as the McLaughlin family, who rest there as well.

The McLaughlin family contributed so much to the city of Oshawa, it isn’t a surprise they contributed to the local cemetery as well.

George McLaughlin, son of Robert McLaughlin Sr. and brother to R.S. (Sam) McLaughlin, purchased the cemetery’s shares from Ontario Loan and Savings Co., and William H. Thomas.

He then gifted the cemetery property to the town of Oshawa in 1922.

He also gave $500 to the cemetery to move deceased soldiers to the Union Cemetery War Veterans Plot, which is located in section E. Sam later donated to the same plot.

After he passed in 1942, George’s remains were put into the large, white mausoleum— constructed by Canada Mausoleum’s Ltd.—located north of the cemetery office.

As for his brother Sam— who was a colonel, Oshawa philanthropist and president of General Motors (GM) Canada in 1918 to 1945—he is entombed with his wife, Adelaide, and their five daughters in their own mausoleum.

The McLaughlin mausoleum is an eye-catching memorial in Union Cemetery. It was designed by architect John Lyle in an art-deco style made of black marble. It is also in section E, north-west of the mausoleum George rests in.

Despite the McLaughlin family and the many others no longer with the living, it does not mean they cannot be brought back to life.

“In our first year, we had Adelaide (McLaughlin) on our tour and…last year we had Sam’s brother George,” Terech says.

The McLaughlin’s play very large in our community’s history but there’s so many other stories out there,” she says.

There are many other stories in the cemetery waiting to be told. Terech says the first meeting for this year’s Scenes in the Cemetery took place not too long ago.

The characters the public may see this year include a female undertaker from the 19th century, a Robinson descendant with an “interesting personality”, E.A. Lovell, Florence McGillivary and more.

“We’re hoping to have a really interesting scene at one of the graves…We’re hoping to have it kind of playing out as an election debate,” says Terech.

“There are two candidates from the 1911 federal election who are interred in the cemetery and we’re hoping to have both of them at one of the graves bantering,” she says.

Scenes from the Cemetery have been able to educate the public on the deceased’s history, but Union Cemetery’s Merritt can educate the living on their future resting preferences.

Memento Mori, which is inscribed on the entrance of the large white mausoleum, is latin for “remember death”, according to the Union Cemetery brochure.

Cemeteries are a great way to remember those who died.

Merritt wants people to prepare and educate themselves on how to be laid to rest and remembered.