Second life for Elmwood Cemetery

A cemetery is a final resting place for the deceased, but sometimes a cemetery itself has to be brought back from the brink of death.That’s what has been happening at the Elmwood Cemetery for more than a decade.

Back in the late 1990s, under private owners who didn’t have enough money to maintain the cemetery, the grass was long, tree branches were broken and lying on the ground, and — most damning of all — some grave plots were in danger of becoming part of the Red River.

Since then, a group of volunteers — the Friends of the Historic Elmwood Cemetery — have been working to resuscitate the cemetery and restore it to its former state.

Helen Norrie said even before her husband, longtime former mayor Bill Norrie, died in 2012, and long before he helped create the Friends in 1998, Elmwood was already their first choice for a final resting place.

“He felt quite strongly about Elmwood Cemetery. It was an important place for him,” Norrie said of her husband. “His family had been buried there — his mother and father. His dad in 1958 and his mother in 1964. An older sister was also there.

“On my side of the family, the Frasers and the Scurfields — my mother was a Fraser — their burial ground is there, too. And the graves of our two sons are in the same family plot.”

Norrie said between her and her husband, her connection to Elmwood goes back the longest.

“My grandmother’s mother, Helen, was buried there in 1925,” she said. “And my grandmother’s father, Hugh Fraser, was buried there in 1947. I’m named after her.”

Wayne Rogers, the Friends’ executive director, said the cemetery’s disrepair was what sparked Bill Norrie, former city councillor and MLA Charlie Birt and retired accountant Bob Filuk to come together and create the Friends of Elmwood Cemetery in 1998. After negotiations between the owner, the city and the province, ownership of the cemetery was transferred to the Friends in 1998.

The mandate of the Friends was simple: “To restore the historic Elmwood Cemetery to a state of dignity and natural beauty, and to make the cemetery financially self-sufficient.”

Rogers said Elmwood Cemetery not only has a long history, it may be one of the only cemeteries that gave a name to its surrounding area.

Rogers said Elmwood Cemetery — named for the already-old elm trees left in place during its installation — was the namesake for the community of Elmwood.

“It has quite a history, and there are several prominent people and families buried here,” Rogers said, noting two provincial premiers, Rodmond Roblin and his grandson Duff Roblin, are there.

“And that’s where I’ll be someday, too,” Rogers added with a laugh.

There are still plots available. Rogers said about 400 full burial sites are there, as well as almost 100 niches for ashes.

Plans for the cemetery began in 1901, and once $50,000 was raised by the Elmwood Cemetery Corporation it was incorporated under the province’s Cemeteries Incorporation Act.

The next step was to buy 15 hectares of land in what was then the Municipality of Kildonan, between what later became Henderson Highway and the Red River. The cemetery included a greenhouse, where people could buy shrubs and flowers to place by the plots, a mortuary chapel, a receiving tomb and a superintendent’s office.

Across the street, the cemetery built its horse stables.

At the time, many citizens in the municipality — as well as its elected council — were against the cemetery because they felt it would reduce the value of nearby property.

The cemetery opened the next year, and its first burial was nine-month-old baby Grace Eveline Lemon.

Since then, about 52,000 other people have joined Lemon in a cemetery originally designed to have room for about 25,000 internments. Most plots now have more than one burial in them, and many of the roads have been removed and filled with internments.

Thanks to non-stop fundraising, the cemetery has a larger perpetual fund than it has ever had and hopes to grow it even more. Jim Baker, the Friends’ chairman, said its fund stood at $4.7 million in September.

“We’re working to build it so it is self-sufficient,” Baker said.

“We have a significant amount of money, but when our revenues decline — when there are no plots to sell — we’ll have to rely solely on the investment income. Our target is $5 million.”

Baker also has a personal interest in the cemetery. Inside its gates are his grandparents, mother and father, and two uncles. His brother will be interred there one day.

“My wife and I will be there, too,” he said.

Baker said a big part of ensuring the cemetery’s continued health is connecting with family members of people buried there.

“We have generous donors now, but there are 50,000-plus people buried here,” he said.

“We know who is here and where they are buried, but we don’t have contact with the 50,000-plus families who are key to giving us support.”

Rogers said decades after its creation, before the Friends stepped in, the cemetery’s perpetual fund had deteriorated and its grounds had fallen into disrepair. Added to that, the Red River was eroding the edge of the cemetery and putting some of the gravesites in peril.

The city was forced to move 105 graves near the riverside in 1997 and 1998, before the city and province came together to fund a $1-million riverbank-stabilization project along the edge of the cemetery.

“It is complete and maintained every year,” Rogers said. “Engineering firms come annually to inspect it.”

Norrie said the cemetery is now a beautiful and fitting place for both the people who are interred there and the people who go there to remember them.

“They had to clean all the hanging stuff on the trees,” she said. “At one point, it was really gloomy-looking.

“They’ve really cleaned it up. They’ve done a wonderful job.”

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 31, 2015 B4

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