A Short History of Calgary's Union Cemetery


Union is Calgary's oldest cemetery, but not its first. In 1884, nine years after the North West Mounted Police founded Fort Calgary, the citizens of the town saw a need for a permanent public cemetery. Up until that time, burials were performed in a cemetery established by the Roman Catholic Mission; non-Catholics being buried in an unsanctified area set aside for that purpose. An application was made to the Dominion Government of Canada and land was set aside at Shaganappi Point, then quite a distance outside the town, for a new cemetery.

The Shaganappi site (now a golf course) was never very popular. The underlying glacial till made the ground conditions unsuitable for a cemetery and the general isolation (and some say desolation) of the area led the town to seek another site. Eventually land was purchased from Augustus Carney, a local farmer and in 1892 about 65 bodies were moved from Shaganappi Point to the new Union Cemetery. Record keeping, however, was not as accurate as it is today and some of the people who were buried at Shaganappi did not, apparently, find their way to Union (which leaves the honouring of their memory to duffers stuck on the back nine).

Union is a typical Victorian cemetery. Many of the markers and grave sites show late 19th century symbolism and ironwork and the landscaping deliberately park-like. The majority of the graves area aligned in the traditional east-west orientation with the heads of the deceased in the west. This tradition soon fell out of fashion and the newer graves at Union do not follow the same geographical orientation.

The beauty of the surroundings can be attributed to Calgary's first Parks Superintendent, William Reader, whose residence was located at the north end of the cemetery. Reader felt that a cemetery should not try to hide its purpose but, in his own words, "...the evidence of death ought not to be allowed to be repulsive...it can at least be made a monument , in its entirety, to those whose bodies are placed in it". Today, care of Calgary cemeteries still falls under the jurisdiction of the department of Parks and Recreation.

The garden surrounding the Superintendent's residence became both a showpiece for the city and an experimental garden where Reader would test various species of plant to see which would survive the harsh prairie winters. The gardens fell into disrepair but have been partially restored and the north end of the Cemetery is now a favourite spot for wedding photographers. During summer weekends you will see more wedding cars than hearses at Union Cemetery.

Close to the Reader Gardens (still on the north side of the cemetery) is the old Chapel and Mortuary pictured above. The structure was built in 1908 and is architecturally unique in Calgary. An early city ordinance required all public buildings to be built of fire resistant stone. Most buildings of the time period are constructed of local Sandstone, a material which was readily available at the time. The Union Chapel is, however, constructed of blocks of concrete which were cast to look like quarried stone - some would say the Chapel is a precursor of architectural modernism. At the turn of the century, when graves were dug by hand, the frozen ground during the winter months made grave-digging an arduous task. After the final services in the chapel, caskets were lowered by an elevator to the mortuary in the basement to await the thawing of the ground in the spring. There was a $2.00 fee for this storage with a penalty charge if the bodies were not removed by May 1st.

As the histories of Calgary and the Mounted Police are forever linked, there are two areas in Union Cemetery (in sections 'D' and 'S') which are exclusively for the use of the force and contain monuments to men who were among the original 300 members of the North West Mounted Police. The two rows of graves on the east end of section 'D' were given to the Mounties when the cemetery was first established. A few of the men interred here were among those moved from Shaganappi Point. The plots in section 'S' were purchased by the Mounted Police Veteran's Association in the 1930's. It is part of the duty of the current serving members of the RCMP to care for the graves of their fallen comrades; these graves are inspected regularly by the force and necessary repairs made.

One of the most interesting sections of Union Cemetery contains no markers. Potter's Field, an area about the size of four residential lots, contains the remains of about one thousand of early Calgary's homeless, destitute, unwanted and...executed. Executions in the early days of Calgary were carried out in the guardroom of the Mounted Police barracks and the bodies were usually buried in unmarked graves near the scaffold. But, there were cases where executed criminals were buried in unmarked graves in Union Cemetery. The story of one of these criminals - the notorious Ernest Cashel who escaped custody twice before finally being executed - never fails to fascinate visitors to the cemetery.