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City park has a morbid past

March 2019

The park known as McBurney Park in Kingston, Ontario, a park known locally as Skeleton Park, is one park with a rather morbid history.

From 1819 until 1864, it was the Upper Burial Ground, the final resting place for many early settlers in the Kingston area of Upper Canada.

Closed to new burials when it reached capacity, all maintenance ceased and the cemetery fell into disrepair.

Local farmers allowed their livestock to graze on the land and many of the gravestone were damaged or destroyed, leaving the graves unmarked.

Local legend even tells of grave-robbing by medical students at the nearby Queen’s University Medical School.

By the late 1880s, the growing city needed the land for growth and a decision was made to disinter the bodies and move them to other cemeteries. However in the end, many bodies were left where they lay. Some were unclaimed by family members, but most were left as they hadn’t sufficiently decomposed. Kingston’s shallow soil and the bedrock beneath it resulted in many of the bodies being buried close to the surface. The high water table prevented many of the bodies from decomposing properly and with the rampant cholera, diphtheria and typhus at the time, many people were concerned about contagious viruses if the bodies were dug up.

Those that were left were simply covered over and forgotten. Spotty record keeping prevents city officials from telling exactly how many remains still lay beneath the playground, sports facilities and walkways.

Occasionally a gravestone will work their way to the surface. City officials have advised citizens to contact City Hall and workers will attend and cover over the stone. Provincial laws prohibit the removal of remains or artifacts from cemeteries except under the authority of the Provincial Coroner’s Office or a “site disposition agreement.”

Despite the morbid history of McBurney Park, Kingston residents have embraced the park as an important part of the city. Every June, the park plays host to the Skeleton Park Arts Festival, a four-day arts and music festival that celebrates local and international artists.


About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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