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Volunteers step up to help lone caretaker of centuries-old New Brunswick cemetery

FREDERICTON — After three decades of keeping watch over the dead at a New Brunswick cemetery, home to the final resting place for some of the province’s most notable names, Peter Spence now has help.

Eight volunteers have stepped up to assist with the landscaping, cleaning and other maintenance tasks for the nearly 200-year-old Dorchester Rural Cemetery, in the province’s southeast corner.

“I never mind doing what I was doing,” Spence, 75, said in an interview.

“But it became a very lonely job. You never had anybody to get a second opinion no matter what you were doing.”

The cemetery is the resting ground for Edward Barron Chandler, one of the Fathers of Confederation, and two premiers — Daniel Hannington and Sir Albert Smith, who was knighted by Queen Victoria. About 1,300 people are buried there.

Spence became secretary-treasurer of the cemetery’s board in 1992. Over time, other members died, leaving him to become the “face of the cemetery.”

“It’s a sort of a serene … I hesitate to use the word ‘pleasant’ with a cemetery, but it’s a comforting spot,” he said, describing the volunteer job.

Spence said he recently told some friends in the village that he wasn’t getting any younger, worried that there wouldn’t be anyone left to maintain the graves and that “at some point somebody’s going to have to step up.”

One of his friends helped organize a community meeting, where about 20 people showed up. Nine of them are now on the cemetery board, including Spence. 

Bob Hickman, one of the members of the newly formed board, said the group hopes to get younger people involved with the cemetery’s upkeep to ensure it is maintained for future generations.

“I think we’re one of many cemeteries that are finding themselves at that point where the older people are passing on, and there doesn’t seem to be a groundswell of interest or people interested in preserving the past or the cemeteries as we know them,” he said.

“I think to a large extent (the cemetery) preserves our history. To create a destination, if you will, of remembrance.”

Chandler, one of the cemetery’s famous occupants, attended the Charlottetown, Quebec and London conferences, which led to the creation of Canada. He helped build the Intercolonial Railway and was appointed lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick in 1878.

He also gifted the land for the cemetery to the people of the village of Dorchester, which recently merged with Sackville and Pointe de Bute to form the region of Tantramar. 

Spence said he hopes the presence of Chandler’s grave encourages the Canadian government to give a little money for having the grass in the cemetery mowed, cleaned and maintained.

“It’s important to take care of such places because they are a link to the past.”

Parks Canada did not respond to a request for comment on whether the federal government would help with taking care of the place. Tantramar Mayor Andrew Black did not return a request for comment on how the region would help with the maintenance of the cemetery.

Most of the people donate their time to look after the cemetery, Hickman said. The site brings in “a very tiny source of income when they happen to sell a lot.” 

“They’re making less than $1,000 on a lot,” he said. “It’s pocket change.”

The cemetery board also receives occasional donations.

The incoming board will not just look at ways to maintain the cemetery but also sustainable sources of income, he added.

Spence said he has a spot reserved for himself when the time comes. 

“I actually own a lot in the cemetery that we’re discussing,” he said. “So probably I’ll be there sooner or later — full time.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 25, 2023.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

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