Earlier this summer after an outing to Rainbow Park some of us museum folk paid a visit to the Whistler Cemetery. None of us had ever been so we figured it would be a good opportunity to see this oft-forgotten but integral local landmark.
Cemeteries provide historical researchers with a wealth of useful information that can often be hard to find elsewhere. Rows of gravestones offer reliable data such as people’s full names, places of birth, years of death, etc. Examining gravestone design and cemetery layout can provide clues regarding religion and class structure in a community, among other things.
I was especially interested as my academic background is in environmental history, a field concerned with not only the history of our landscapes, but the history in our landscapes as well.
At first I was surprised by how few grave sites there were. With some thought I recognized that over the years most local people remained connected to their places of birth, or chose to retire elsewhere; only in recent decades have people been born “Whistlerites.” The fact that grave markers were greatly outnumbered by still-unoccupied spaces, perhaps more than anything else, expresses just how young this community is.
Of course, cemeteries don’t only record useful data, they are hugely important community institutions. By paying tribute to our loved ones in an enduring, often highly personal manner, they preserve memories and emotion in their rawest, most human form.
With this in mind, I was equally struck by the landscape design of the cemetery as a whole.
It is refreshingly modest and incredibly peaceful in there.
There are no standing gravestones, only ground-level plaques to mark individual burials. In one corner there is a garden with some stone structures to house urns, as well as a separate meandering path through the forest along which ashes may be scattered. This simplicity and consistency in design ensures that nothing is overshadowed by larger monuments. Everyone has their place.
A few days after our visit, I was pedaling up the Westside Road, tired but content after a solo, late-evening trail ride. As I approached the cemetery turnoff, a hulking mule deer suddenly appeared ahead, staring intently at me over his shoulder. Ignoring my impulse to stop, I instead geared down but kept moving, the deer and I remaining locked in an intensely quiet gaze. Finally, after I had passed the deer and the distance between us grew, he turned his head and calmly wandered into the forest towards the ash-scatter garden.
The deer was at home.
As I rode off, I gained an even deeper appreciation of our community’s cemetery. This thoughtful landmark modestly commemorates Whistler’s past without disturbing its present. The local wildlife are far more rooted here than us human folk, after all. An inspiring model of sustainability, and a fitting tribute to past loved ones, one might say.