Students honour war veterans

Students from John Barsby Secondary School went to a cemetery instead of a cenotaph to honour war veterans last week.

John Barsby students from 2010 Samantha John

Students from John Barsby Secondary School went to a cemetery instead of a cenotaph to honour war veterans last week.

Placing crosses on veterans’ graves in cemeteries in the Cowichan Valley has been a tradition since 1926, said Mike Bieling, an education assistant in John Barsby’s Skills for Life class and a member of the Old Cemeteries Society of Victoria.

While the Remembrance Day focus has shifted to cenotaphs in city centres, Bieling said some communities still continue the practice of visiting graves.

For the past five years, he has involved his students in this commemoration tradition at All Saints’ Anglican Church’s Westholme Cemetery near Crofton, where he grew up.

“This is a good way for them to observe Remembrance Day instead of a long assembly,” said Bieling. “It’s turned into a very nice observation with support from the community.”

Bieling’s interest in cemeteries grew while travelling around B.C. and Alberta with his wife.

He found that he could tell a lot about a community by spending some time in the local cemetery – who came there and why.

Bieling started visiting Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria, met volunteers with the Old Cemeteries Society, and joined the organization.

Eight years ago, the group decided to inventory official issue gravestones for veterans and while visiting different cemeteries in Duncan, Bieling met some women carrying on the tradition of placing crosses on veterans’ graves.

This turned into a project to inventory veterans’ graves at several different sites in the Cowichan Valley after he realized that some of the cross placing was done by memory.

Word of mouth was key in the identification process – Bieling relied on cemetery volunteers, veterans’ families or an emblem or inscription on the grave that indicated military service.

When he expanded his inventory to the Westholme Cemetery – he’s identified about 30 veterans’ graves there – he decided to get his class involved.

Bieling’s students paint the crosses during class and he talks to them about war and what it means to be a veteran.

The class travelled to Crofton last Friday with several John Barsby students involved with sea cadets and some former graduates who participated in previous years.

The community served students a pizza lunch after the crosses were placed.

Bieling said one benefit of participating is learning to see cemeteries in a different light – rather than viewing them as locations for horror movie scenes, the students see them as sacred spaces full of history lessons.

“They’re like a library of information if you know how to start reading them,” he said.

It also helps reinforce students’ respect for Remembrance Day, especially seeing how much the commemoration means to community members, Bieling added.

While the focus in cenotaph ceremonies is those who died and are buried elsewhere, the cemetery commemoration recognizes those lucky enough to come home, but who carry around the mental and physical scars of their experience for the rest of their lives, said Bieling.

The crosses will remain up until the end of the month.

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