A pile of discarded headstones belonging to Canadian war veterans was the last thing Marita Otten expected to see on her morning walk through Lakeview Cemetery recently.
“Curiosity just brought me to look at it closer,” said Otten, who spotted the stones in a junk heap during her regular walk through the Colborne Road cemetery. “And I just looked at it and it broke my heart to see the names of servicemen on the headstones, and they’re jumbled and tossed into a pile.”
Otten, whose father served in the Second World War, was overwhelmed with sadness when she discovered at least a dozen headstones piled in the cemetery’s maintenance area.
“On the headstones it says, ‘Lest we forget,’” she said with emotion in her voice. “In this crazy world we have forgotten them.”
But the soldiers weren’t forgotten at all, Lakeview Cemetery general manager Kelly O’Connor said. The site where some 200 service members are buried was improved with a government grant and support from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, she said.
“If a veteran had a flat marker, (the commission) wanted them to have upright stones to match all the other stones,” she said, adding that the old stones were discarded at the direction of the commission.
Over the last two years, 44 flat stones of veterans located in the cemetery’s Field of Honour were replaced with upright stones. Another 160 were cleaned and re-set to military grave specifications, O’Connor explained.
The commission contacted Lakeview and several other Ontario cemeteries about the project, and sent staff from their Ottawa office to oversee the improvements at the specially designated area for graves of veterans from the two World Wars and the Korean War.
There is no official protocol for disposal of old headstones, which were the property of the commission, O’Connor said. Cemetery staff was instructed to place them face down, but they appear to have been flipped by someone to reveal the names.
“There was nothing disrespectful that was done to the stones,” said O’Connor, adding that all the markers in question have since been disposed of off site. “The stones have all been replaced with new veteran’s upright stones.”
Whenever headstones or foundations are fixed, the old concrete is disposed of in a pile at the south east corner of the cemetery, O’Connor explained, which is a considerable distance from the rest of the graves.
“Again it’s our private property. I don’t know what somebody would be doing back there. It’s like a working area that we use,” said O’Connor. “We thought this was a fantastic thing. We were honoured and privileged to be a part of it actually.”
She’s fielded at least one call from a concerned citizen and they were satisfied with her explanation, O’Connor added.
Contractors are instructed to break up deteriorated headstones so names and identities are not recognizable, said the Commission in a statement to The Journal. Broken-up headstones can then be repurposed in other parts of the cemetery while new headstones are installed, they United Kingdom-based group added.
“When headstones are being replaced in our cemeteries, we ensure great care is taken to maintain respect,” said spokesperson Nicholas Schiavo.
Despite the explanation from Lakeview, Otten is still unsure how she feels about what happened to the stones.
“Their answer doesn’t satisfy me really,” she said, wondering if there should be official protocol for headstone disposal. “If somebody had ripped up my father’s headstone, I would’ve been mortified.”