Laying crosses on gravestones helps students connect with history

NANAIMO – Tradition sees John Barsby Secondary School class participate in project.

Nanaimo students laid hand-painted crosses on the graves of veterans last week as part of a central Island tradition to remember soldiers who returned home from war.

Wooden crosses, lapel poppies and cedar sprigs have been placed on the graves of veterans in the Cowichan Valley since 1926, but volunteer Mike Bieling says there has been a push to re-energize and spread the tradition.

There are now close to 1,000 crosses placed at Cowichan grave sites by central island volunteers and army cadets, who honour veterans “lucky enough” to survive peacekeeping missions and war to return  home. Crosses are also placed on 700 graves at Cedar Valley Memorial Gardens.

Students from John Barsby Community School’s Skills for Life class have been joining the observation event south of Nanaimo for the last seven years.

A group of 10 teenagers travelled to Westholme cemetery near the Chemainus River last Friday to lay hand-painted crosses against veterans’ tombstones.

“It’s become a class remembrance project [and] it’s more meaningful for the kids than sitting in another assembly in the gym,”  said Bieling, a researcher with the Old Cemeteries Society and education assistant at John Barsby.

The abstract idea of Remembrance Day sounds “so far away until they get to see a tombstone. It seems to anchor people to a story.”

Remembrance Day observations in cemeteries has been a waning tradition in many communities as people either forgo remembrance ceremonies or attend cenotaph events that honour those that died overseas, cemetery event organizers say.

“It’s kind of a lost thing,” said Gordon Murcheson, Remembrance ceremony coordinator with the Cedar Memorial Gardens.

“[But] I firmly believe wars should never happen and if we remember the horrors of war and just go out there and stand around [the graves] and look, then eventually maybe they will find another way to solve problems.”

Murcheson said the organization of the event was a tradition passed along from his father, who took over when observation founder, Al Gooding, died. The event started in the early 1980s to recognize close to 400 veterans buried in the cemetery.

In the Cowichan Valley, there has also always been someone trying to preserve the tradition, including “one lonesome volunteer” in the 1950s, Bieling said.

He got involved in the observation nearly a decade ago. During an inventory of military-issued tombstones for the Old Cemeteries Society, he met volunteers at Mountain View Cemetery concerned that people would eventually forget the location of the grave sites. Most of the veterans’ locations were known only by memory or scraps of paper.

“In a lot of cases they were being forgotten, especially the vast number of veterans who had tombstones put there by their families,” Bieling said. “They don’t indicate anything at all that the husband or wife had any kind of military service and within a generation or two, the families don’t even know.  It’s why it’s so important to get these things written down.”

To help, Bieling created a database of graves that could be a guide to new generations of observers across the mid-Island.  The map has been expanded to include other cemeteries in the Cowichan Valley and a legion of volunteers has taken on the task of laying down poppies, cedar and crosses at the tombstones. Nanaimo’s special needs students were included with local sea and army cadets to re-energize the Remembrance Day tradition.

“We are trying to spread the tradition around the Cowichan Valley and it seems to be taking root again,” he said, adding the Old Cemeteries Society hopes to eventually bring commemoration to every cemetery in the region. Events recognize those that were members of Northwest Mounted Police and the British Indian Army, as well as those who participated in different wars.