Not resting in peace: Graves tumble into the sea as coastal erosion plagues Newfoundland

TORS COVE, NL—My boots crunch over beach rocks as I approach a crumbling bank on the shore of this community just south of St. John’s. I saw something lying on a rock and thought, “that piece of kelp looks like a skull.” It wasn’t kelp.

For weeks I had been looking into coastal erosion and its effects on old cemeteries. I had spoken to Jennifer Power, who grew up in Tors Cove and remembered the day nearly eight years ago when a 12-year-old girl had knocked on her door.

“Nan told me to tell you to come down and look,” Power recalls the girl saying. “I found a person.” Power went with her and confirmed the find—a human skull.

A human skull found on the beach in Tors Cove, NL, on Feb. 13. RCMP are investigating, but the skull is believed to have come from an old cemetery on an eroding bank above.

“I knew right away it had come from the old graveyard,” Power says. “I lived next door. We always knew what was up there.” RCMP later arrived and confirmed the skull was old. Power believes it was reinterred in the graveyard.

Now, here I was, standing on the same beach with a human skull at my feet. I pulled out the photo Power had sent me of the skull she had seen. This one was distinctly different, and bigger. I sat down beside it. Power had told me she recoiled when the girl asked her if they should pick up the skull.

“Don’t touch it!” she recalls saying. “I don’t know what hit me so hard about it, just that it was a sacred thing. This is somebody’s head.”

Now I knew exactly what she meant.

A 10-hour drive on the other side of the island near Port aux Basques, George Critchell has made similar finds over the years.

About 25 years ago, the retired Anglican minister and his wife moved out to Mcdougall’s, just a few hundred meters from the old Little River Cemetery.

“There used to be quite a number of graves there, but the sea eroded it little by little,” Critchell says.

“You’d go down and there’d be a couple of skulls and some other bones. Then after a good sea, that would all disappear. A few months later you’d see another leg bone or something sticking out through the side of the hill.” He says his grandkids, visiting from Toronto and not knowing any better, would sometimes try to fit the bones together while playing on the beach.

While stories of children stumbling over bleached human remains might make for a killer opening to a fairy tale, climate scientists warn that what is happening to coastal cemeteries in Newfoundland will get worse.

“There is a problem,” says Memorial University geographer Norm Catto. “There are a number of cemeteries where we are seeing erosion, and grave sites are in danger of being eroded away.”

The bank of an old cemetery (centre-right) in Tors Cove, NL, is eroding, occasionally depositing 200-year-old human bones on the beach.

Catto looked at the entire coastline of Newfoundland and much of Labrador in 50-meter increments for a 2011 report to the provincial department of natural resources. The result was an exhaustive inventory of rates of erosion.

But he says no one has compiled a list of cemeteries at risk in the province and that doing so would be a tall order, because it’s a complex matter crossing multiple government departments.

He says other jurisdictions have managed to do it, citing efforts to protect flooded remains on Herschel Island-Qikiqtaruk in Yukon. The Mi’kmaq community of Lennox Island, PEI, has also looked at ways to protect historic remains.

“If people have attachments to their ancestors and don’t want them washed into the ocean,” Catto says, “then probably the best move is to find another spot to lay the remains to rest.”

TO study released last December by the University of Waterloo on the effects of climate change on Canada’s eastern and western coastal communities paints a grim picture of rising sea levels, dwindling sea ice, worsening storms and increased overland flooding.

The report indicates that under a medium-emission scenario, sea levels will rise by nearly a meter in Atlantic Canada by 2100, about double what’s expected on Canada’s Pacific coast. The planet will see more water in oceans as ice sheets in Greenland and western Antarctica melt. Warming will also mean less sea ice, which will mean more erosion from waves; worsening storms may lead to larger storm surges and overland flooding.

This has real-life consequences for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians as some 90 per cent of residents live along the coast.

As of 2020 provincial government report provides an overall average erosion rate of 20 centimeters a year. But that belies the highly variable rates of erosion across sites.

Daniel’s Harbour, up the coast from Port aux Basques, has a history of landslides and has lost as much as 10 meters in a single event as captured on video.

Perhaps a bunch of old bones don’t stand a chance.

But life goes on in Newfoundland, and Joe Daraio, a civil engineer at Memorial University, is trying to find solutions to the problem of erosion.

Daraio has a grad student working on downscaling, which involves tapping into the power of a supercomputer to narrow down what is normally a massive grid size of extreme weather modeling (80 square kilometers) to a more manageable size communities can tap into.

The data helps inform his research, which he is conducting with an ecologist exploring the use of trees and vegetation to shore up coastal areas. Attempting to protect coastline in this way is one of several mitigation strategies to deal. Another is raising buildings or adjusting municipal setbacks.

And then there’s a retreat.

“The obvious best solution is just to get the hell out of the way, but that’s not going to happen,” Daraio says. “People have their homes and they’re anchored here for better or worse.”

As a former biologist, Daraio believes we need to learn to live with natural systems, “giving nature space to do what it does.”

As for something like an eroding graveyard, he says, “there’s really not much you can say. It’s just a matter of time before it’s gone. The sad fact is that there’s no stopping rising sea levels and once you get a big storm, it will be gone.”

People watching their historic community cemeteries crumble are divided.

George Critchell in Port aux Basques is philosophical. He thinks it’s important for family and friends to be able to visit the final resting place of a loved one. “I’m also a believer that you come from the dust, to the dust you return.

“If it had been somebody putting up a condo or something, it would have been different. But when it was done by the sea, with no livyers (permanent residents) around to witness it on a daily basis? I suppose they could put gabions in there to protect it,” he says, referring to cages filled with rocks or bricks, “but I don’t know if they should spend good money.”

Tors Cove, NL resident Genevieve Melvin is concerned that 200-year-old family remains may wash out to sea.

Back over in Tors Cove, Genevieve Melvin feels differently. She says her family of her had lived in the cove for two centuries. She recalls sliding down the cemetery bank — Boone’s Hill — as a child.

“My great-great-great-grandfather is over there,” she told me. “Edward Fortune and his wife, Judy. He died in 1833.”

Melvin has been deep into genealogy of late, and the idea of ​​losing the remains of people she’s just getting to know doesn’t sit well. “It’s horrible,” she says. “I’d love to know what could be done to save it.”

Melvin and I had made a date to visit the graveyard when I came to visit. I stood up from the skull and went to meet her. Before we picked our way through the tall grass and wild roses to see it, I told her what I’d found.

Her face grew solemn. “We’ll have to call the RCMP.” Then we walked through the field, picking out grave markers here and there. She pointed to the now uninhabited islands just offshore and told me who she used to live where. Anyone who died before 1877 would be in this cemetery, but it’s difficult to know who lies where.

Not to mention who has tumbled down the bank. Or who might be next. Two headstones stand not three meters from the already undermined edge.

I called the RCMP and waited. The shadows were growing long and the tide had come up by the time a cruiser arrived. I led the officer to the skull. He took a few photos and lifted it into an evidence bag. It would go to the coroner’s office in St. John’s for testing.

Jennifer Power says if anything can be done to save the graveyard, it should be done. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for whoever is up in that graveyard,” she says. “And I don’t think anybody should be washing away.”

“Imagine if this person could have known what would happen to them in 150 years,” I said to the officer as he packed up the large clear bag. He chuckled and walked back to his car.

Later that night we were walloped by a winter storm.

Monica Kidd is a writer and physician and a fellow at the University of Toronto Dalla Lana Global Journalism Fellowship.


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