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Disinterment Process


People work at Elmbank Cemetery archaeological site under a canopy. A plane is in the background.

Photo courtesy of J. Christopher Dudar, site principal bioarchaeologist / forensic anthropologist


A total of 634 burial shafts were identified and excavated. From that total, 622 individuals were documented and exhumed. Two burials contained insufficient material to assess the nature of the associated individual and an additional ten graves proved to be empty. It is likely that most of the empty graves represent interments whose remains were removed by family members upon the closure of the cemetery.

Where present, the coffin hardware and personal belongings of 624 burials were subjected to analysis. A total of 23,794 artifacts were documented in the burials. Evidence found among the burials suggests that the cemetery was in active use from 1857 through 1937; archival research, however, indicates that the first burial occurred in the year 1833 and the last burial took place in 1939.

Topsoil was removed in order to determine the location and orientation of burials. When a grave shaft became evident, the grave was photographed and recorded on an established grid for the site. Once the soil fills of grave shafts were removed and human bone was encountered, the skeletal remains were fully uncovered in place and photographed. The horizontal and vertical locations of all gravestone fragments, personal artifacts and coffin hardware were recorded. Exhumation followed, which involved the labelling and packaging of individual bones or groups of bones. This process included the collection of skeletal data, such as the sex and the age as well as the overall health status of an individual. This information was required in order to separate persons buried within the same grave shaft, and to ensure that identifications made from historic documents, monuments, and/or coffin nameplates coincided with the associated remains. Skeletal analysis was undertaken on-site.


Of the 634 excavated burials, it was possible to determine in 622 of the cases a biographical profile of the deceased individual. This information was compiled from a combination of data including osteological evidence as well as information recovered from name plates on coffins and burial headstones. Definitive proof of a familial relationship could only have been provided by the analysis of DNA from the bone tissue. Despite the wishes of many descendants, this analysis was not permitted under the terms of the closure stipulated by the Cemeteries Registrar. Despite this, it was possible to identify 138 individuals through their coffin name plates. The patterning of graves was examined to reconstruct family groups to allow them to be re-interred together.

Of the 622 burials, a total of 139 individuals were identified as elderly, 251 were classified as adults aged between 18 and 49, 18 were adolescent, 107 were children, 56 were infants of less than a year, 25 were newborns of less than a month, and 6 were fetal.

Skeletal Analysis

The observation of disease and traumatic injuries on skeletal remains provides insight into the overall health status and occupational hazards of the population. By recording the frequency of individuals manifesting certain disease markers, as well as fractures and dislocations, it is possible to reconstruct the everyday struggle endured by the nineteenth-century pioneers buried at Elmbank cemetery.

Specific conditions and diseases, such as osteoporosis, arthritis, tuberculosis, periostitis, and various forms of cancer were observed on a number of adult remains. Some adults, and especially the remains of children, exhibited non-specific signs of chronic disease and/or nutritional stress that cannot be attributed to one specific disease or episode of disease. These findings of chronic disease in adults and children are not unusual in populations that pre-date modern Western medicine with antibiotic treatment and knowledge of basic hygiene, sanitation, and balanced nutrition.

Numerous instances of fractured bones, arthritis, and spinal column disorders, as well as the robust appearance of the skeletal muscle attachments in many males and females, all indicate a life of hard work for both sexes. This finding mirrors observations of other historic Ontario populations.

Just under half of the analyzable crania showed evidence of a pathology of the eye socket indicating malnutrition. The presence of this pathology decreased with the age of the individuals and it was seen more frequently among females than among males. No severe cases of this pathology were seen among the wealthy.

Analysis of Archaeological Finds

Coffins, caskets and their hardware were some of the largest finds during the disinterment process. Analysis was made on the shape, the decoration and ornamentation of these objects, particularly in regards to their handles. Coffins often displayed decorative crosses or crucifixes as well. Coffin plates were helpful in determining the identity of the burial and also in revealing familial relationships.

Buttons and pins were found in the burials indicating that all ages were generally buried in a state of dress. Scapulars and jewellery were found in a relatively small number of burials.

The most common religious artifacts recovered within the burials were rosaries, with at least fifty represented in the collection. Other religious artifacts included bottles filled presumably with holy water, pendants, medallions and candles. While there were many items of religious significance, there was a limited range of iconography. This is most likely attributed to the devotions that were most popular among Catholics over that time period and most meaningful to the individuals and their families. Given that these items were purchased from artisans and suppliers, people would also have chosen from among the range of devotional objects that were available to them. These are typical of Catholic iconography of the period.

Other personal items that were found in the burials included ceramics, hair combs and other hair accessories, as well as smoking pipe fragments and bank tokens. One burial included a crumpled but fairly well-preserved newspaper.

A major question raised throughout the course of the project was the degree to which members of the Elmbank community celebrated or maintained their largely Irish roots. The coffin hardware and personal effects demonstrate little concern for the expression of Irish ethnicity through material goods. In only two instances have uniquely Irish symbols been identified. The first of these was found in the form of relief-carved shamrocks and a harp on the 1869 monument to Edward Lynch. Both motifs were strongly associated with Irish nationalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The second instance was a "monogrammatic cross" appearing on the plate affixed to the coffin of Owen Lamb, who died in 1903. This icon on the right edge of the plate is closely comparable to a symbol in early Medieval (circa fifth to seventh century A.D.) Irish religious art.

The Reinterment

In accordance with the terms of the closure order, all individual burials were re-interred separately at Assumption Cemetery, Mississauga, with the dignity and the respect due to human remains. Where individuals were originally buried in the same shaft, probably reflecting a family relationship and history, they were also re-interred in the same shaft. As much as possible, burials which were close to one another at the original site were placed close to one another at the new site. All artifacts found in burials were documented and re-interred with the appropriate human remains.  Each burial found at the Airport site was numbered and the location of re-interment meticulously mapped.

The new site in the consecrated ground of Assumption Cemetery is accessible, beautiful and peaceful. In the light of what was learned from the descendants and from the excavation, the new site was designed with the intention to remain true to the lives of these people. They were Catholics within what was then a largely Protestant society, early participants in the growth of today's diverse community. They built a life, raised their families and cultivated the land, playing a constructive and vital part in the pioneering of Upper Canada and the building of Ontario.

Excavation of Second Church and Rectory