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.

Just Posted

Nanaimo Fire Rescue firefighters at the scene of a single-vehicle crash on Tenth Street near Southside Drive on Sunday, June 13. (Greg Sakaki/News Bulletin)
Driver OK after crashing vehicle off the side of Nanaimo’s Tenth Street

Crews say wet roads a factor a crash Sunday, June 13

Nanaimo RCMP had been asking for help locating a 43-year-old man whose family was ‘extremely worried.’ (Submitted photo)
UPDATE: Nanaimo RCMP report man who had made ‘troubling’ comments has been found

43-year-old is receiving treatment he requires, say police

(PQB News file photo)
Fireworks report highlights enforcement challenges for Regional District of Nanaimo

Director: ‘I just think it’s wasting everybody’s time’

An event on the lawn of the B.C. legislature in Victoria on Tuesday to remember the 215 children whose remains were confirmed buried in unmarked graves outside a Kamloops residential school. (Greg Sakaki/News Bulletin)
LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Canada’s racist systems cannot ever be forgiven

Teen letter writer from Nunavut calls for truth and reconciliation

Nanaimo is the first city in Canada to subscribe to the Chonolog environment photo-monitoring system, which allow residents to contribute photos of habitat restoration projects that are converted to time lapse sequences showing environmental changes. (Chris Bush/ News Bulletin)
Nanaimo residents invited to be citizen scientists by sharing habitat restoration photos

Nanaimo first city in Canada to sign up for Chronolog environment photo monitoring service

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a plenary session at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, England on Friday June 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada donating 13M surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to poor countries

Trudeau says the government will pay for 87 million shots to be distributed to poor countries

Premier John Horgan speaks as provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, right, and health minister Adrian Dix look on during a press conference to update on the province’s fall pandemic preparedness plan during a press conference from the press theatre at Legislature in Victoria, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. officials to provide details on Step 2 of COVID reopening plan Monday

Step 2 could allow for larger gatherings and a resumption of recreational travel

Members of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Marine Mammal Response Program rescued an adult humpback what that was entangled in commercial fishing gear in the waters off of Entrance Island on Thursday, June 10. (Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Response Program)
Rescuers free humpback ‘anchored’ down by prawn traps near Nanaimo

Department of Fisheries and Oceans responders spend hours untangling whale

City of Nanaimo council has approved amendments for an animal control bylaw requested by the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations. The bylaw includes language related to quail. (Wikipedia Commons photo)
Province asks for tweaks to Nanaimo’s animal responsibility bylaw

Ministry concerned bylaw wording could create municipal and provincial jurisdictional overlaps

Nanaimo Regional General Hospital. (News Bulletin file)
Nanaimo hospital district seeks help from other districts for $1-billion project

Funding for Nanaimo Regional General Hospital patient tower discussed by committee

Stuffed toys, many with donations pinned to them, are piled in the Lions Pavilion at Maffeo Sutton Park at a vigil May 31 honouring the 215 Indigenous children whose remains were discovered outside a residential school in Kamloops. (News Bulletin file photo)
Thousands donated to child and family service agency following Nanaimo vigil

Toys and money donated to Kw’umut Lelum child and family services

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller is seen during a news conference, Wednesday May 19, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Indigenous child-welfare battle heads to court despite calls for Ottawa to drop cases

Feds are poised to argue against two Canadian Human Rights Tribunal rulings

The Great Ogopogo Bathtub Race has been held in Summerland as a fundraising event. Do you know which Canadian city introduced this sport? (Black Press file photo)
QUIZ: A summer’s day at the water

How much do you know about boats, lakes and water?

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod laughs while playing with Lucky the puppy outside their Chilliwack home on Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: B.C. family finds ‘perfect’ puppy with limb difference for 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy has special bond with Lucky the puppy who was also born with limb difference

Most Read