No rest in Back Bay Cemetery
Eroding bank threatens sanctity of cemetery

Dane Gibson
Northern News Services

NNSL (Jun 04/99) - John McEchern's body was found by Long Lake in 1936. A note lay by his side stating he would rather die than face his fear of working underground at Negus mine.

McEchern was the first recorded burial at Back Bay Cemetery. Far from resting in peace, his grave is one of 35 grave sites at the cemetery that are threatened by severe erosion of the site's northern bank.

"These are people's grandparents and great-grandparents," said City of Yellowknife lands department senior planner, Monte Christensen.

"The City Heritage Committee is in favour of moving the graves but it's not something we can just go in and do," Christensen said. "It's a sensitive issue and we're handling it as such. We don't want to upset anyone, but at the same time we have to protect the graves that are there."

Christensen said the bodies will be moved from the designated heritage site, one of only eight designated heritage sites in Yellowknife, to Lake View Cemetery. The details of how and when the move will take place haven't been decided yet. The first step, he said, is to contact any living relatives of the deceased.

"We'll make decisions on the physical movement of the graves once we've heard from the descendants," Christensen said.

"What we're thinking is that it will be a phased in approach. The graves most affected by erosion would be moved first. As erosion continues, we would continue to move them."

The city hasn't investigated how much moving the bodies will cost but city engineers did look into stabilizing the bank. It was found the cost to stop the erosion would exceed $125,000.

Both the city and the heritage committee agreed it was too costly.

That work was done, in part, because of a report written by Ben Nind. In 1988, Nind received $1,000 from the city. With the help of a summer student, he fixed up the seriously neglected graveyard.

During that summer, Nind also produced a detailed report outlining the rate of erosion at the cemetery. He conservatively estimated that a foot of slope was lost every two years to spring run-off.

He also researched who was buried at the site and mapped where the graves were. This had to be done because 27 of the 35 graves were unmarked.

Nind, who works in the legislative assembly now, said he's glad to see movement on the issue but wants all avenues explored before something is done.

"There's something to be said for maintaining the integrity of this resting place," Nind said.

"I'd be interested to know how much moving these bodies will cost. Even if the project is phased in, they still need to move 35 bodies. I would rather spend $100,000 to keep the site intact than spend $100,000 to move bodies."

Nind said if moving the graves is the only option, then nothing short of a thorough search for living relatives must be undertaken.

"Not one of those bodies should be moved until a search for living descendants has been exhausted -- an ad in the paper isn't enough," Nind said.

"It should be done out of respect for the individuals and for the fact that those who are buried at Back Bay Cemetery are the pioneers of Yellowknife. They deserve our respect."

Mary Hamilton came to Yellowknife in 1939 when she was 15. Hamilton helped Nind find the unmarked graves and is familiar with the cemetery's past. She has no problem with moving the graves.

"Several years ago I remember when one part of the bank caved away and bodies just about dumped out on the bank," Hamilton said.

"Knowing the area like I do, I know how it's eroding and I know it would cost a lot to maintain. I can see the point of moving the graves, but I'd like to see them all put in one section (of Lake View Cemetery). That way if anyone came looking, they would have a way of finding the deceased."