We step out of the vehicle and scan the sea of gravestones. Sigh. Where do we even begin to look?
We’ve made the pilgrimage to Neepawa’s Riverside Cemetery, myself leading a trio of Canadian travel journalists who are all in their 50s and very fond of how novels like The Stone Angel and The Diviners shaped the CanLit canon. Even I (only in my 30s) get nostalgic for my high school English class.
“You know, you guys are part of a growing travel trend right now: tombstone tourism,” points out one of the journalists.Now, this gal also happens to be the travel editor of a prominent Canadian newspaper, so we’re pretty sure she knows what she’s talking about when it comes to travel trends.
“I read that it’s in the southwest corner, overlooking the river, closest to the golf course,” instructs Doug, a travel writer from Toronto. We spread out, each taking a separate path. We walk respectfully around the graves, heads bowed, eyes glued to the markers. Our pace is a little hurried – I’m not sure if it’s because we’re competitive and want to be the first to find it, or if we want to find it ASAP so we can stop creeping around a cemetery.
Doug is the first to spot it. He rests his hand on the grey granite. He chokes back a quiet “hello.”
Mark from Montreal places a pebble on the headstone, a Jewish custom indicating respect for the dead.
With Halloween upon us, it’s a fitting time to take a closer look at our cemeteries and consider this concept of tombstone tourism. What monuments in cemeteries around Manitoba are prominent enough to attract visitors from near and far to come pay their respects?
Margaret Laurence, Riverside Cemetery, Neepawa
Margaret Laurence, considered by many as the doyen of Canadian literature, was born and raised in Neepawa in 1926. Visitors come during peak summer months to visit the Margaret Laurence House, her childhood residence-turned-museum, and pay their respects to the novelist who rose to fame in the 60s and 70s writing about the complexities of life in the fictional small town of Manawaka.
What many fans don’t realize is that Laurence – who left Neepawa at 18 and went on to live in Africa and England before settling in Lakefield in southern Ontario – is buried in her hometown cemetery, a humble marker with no major distinction, set among the Wemyss family plot.
For travel writer Doug, who admits to having a long fascination with Laurence (“I’ve read all of her books – numerous times”), visiting the author’s grave site was meaningful, “Visiting these monuments is a way of honouring an artist – especially in their birthplace,” he says.
Louis Riel, Cathédral de Saint-Boniface, Winnipeg
The founding father of Manitoba was known for standing up to the Canadian government to ensure the interests of the Métis people of the Canadian Prairie were considered when their homeland entered Confederation. Musée St. Boniface Museum houses the largest collection of Riel’s personal artifacts; his childhood home Riel House in the St. Vital neighbourhood is a Parks Canada National Historic Site; and his handsome tombstone, adorned with a ceinture fléchée, stands stoically in the cemetery that greets visitors who arrive to photograph the facade of the St. Boniface Cathedral.
There is a well-worn path to this monument as many visitors come to pay their respects. Michelle Gervais, executive director of Tourism Riel who leads tours through the St. Boniface neighbourhood, recalls an encounter she had with a tombstone tourist. The man from Quebec held up paper over the grave’s name inscription, took out a piece of carbon and rubbed it to create a copy. “He rolled up the paper with tears in his eyes,” recalls Gervais. “It was very touching and indicates the importance of Louis Riel not only to Manitobans but to all Canadians.”
Chief Peguis, St. Peter Dynevor Anglican Church, East Selkirk
Off the beaten path, tucked in a bend of the mighty Red River opposite the city of Selkirk, an old stone church faces westward towards the setting sun. St. Peter Dynevor Anglican Church is a provincial heritage site and home church of Chief Peguis, the friend and benefactor to the Selkirk Settlers. Among the churchyard’s century-old headstones, a grand monument pays tribute to the Saulteux chief who on numerous occasions during 1812-16 came to the aid of the newcomers who were unfamiliar with the land.
July 18, 2017 marked the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Peguis Selkirk treaty, an momentous agreement between the local Indigenous and settler communities that many historians say led to the eventual development of Winnipeg. Plan a visit to the church to read the eloquent script on Peguis’ stone. The kind words remind us today of the importance of reconciliation: “In…grateful recognition of his good offices to the early settlers.”
Is tombstone tourism creepy? A little. Morbid? Maybe. But it’s also emotional and poignant. And that’s what good travel is all about.
Do you know of other tombstone tourism destinations in Manitoba? Share with us.