Reading and Eating Above the Dead

It seems amazing that the old Memorial Library on Spring Garden Road in Halifax, rests above a mostly forgotten cemetery.

I had heard from other historians that a cemetery once existed under the Memorial Library, which is confirmed by the archaeological report linked above. The site was used for the internment of soldiers and inmates of an asylum that was built on the property. The site had been used from the early 1760’s into the early part of the nineteenth century. One estimate stated that there had been more than 3,000 burials, but it seems more likely that the toll is less than 1,000.

The community in the early 1800’s complained of the poor state of the grounds, which one could interpret as a stench – the poor rarely received a decent burial.

Hessian soldiers are buried on the site, including many who died of an unknown epidemic.

If you know Halifax, you will realize that the city is basically build on a small amount of soil above solid bedrock. Even though on the side of a hill, the ground was described as wet and swampy well above the harbour level. Many of the streams that flowed down Citadel Hill and into the harbour are now long gone, but their presence bespoke a significant wetness in the ground.

When the Memorial Library was built in 1951 (to honour the city’s war dead), there was no mention of the discovery of the remains of those buried there. This seems hard to believe, but as archaeology and the interest in the city’s history seemed to be lacking, perhaps it is possible that the fact the site had once been a cemetery was forgotten? It is very possible, due to the chemical composition of the earth and the wetness of the ground, coupled with the fact that many of the burials were not in coffins, that the human remains have simply disintegrated over the years…

Still, I am happy to see that there is significant resistance to a short-sighted plan to level the old library and develop the land. Let the dead be. Even if the bones are gone, lets remember the spirit of the place. Use the building as a museum, perhaps – celebrate the early days of the city. Though macabre, teach the city what lies below, put up descriptive panels, etc.

Besides, even though the builders didn’t know it, the memorial library sits above those who also deserve to be remembered. The forgotten patients of what was likely a horrid institution, and the forgotten soldiers – veterans of wars no one remembers.


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