Photographer on quest to save Nova Scotia's abandoned cemeteries

·4 min read

For Steve Skafte, the quest to find Nova Scotia's abandoned cemeteries feels a bit like bringing the dead back to life.

The photographer from Bridgetown, N.S., has always been drawn to the places others may have forgotten or overlooked.

His latest project is to create a record of all the abandoned cemeteries in the province, and he's starting close to home.

So far, he's plotted about 40 old cemeteries in Annapolis County alone. He drove by some of them hundreds of times without ever noticing they were there.

"[They're] like 40, 50 feet away, just off the road, but there's so much brush and they're so overgrown and forgotten for so long that, yeah, it's awfully compelling to go looking for them," Skafte said.

Steve Skafte
Steve Skafte

Despite the condition of some of the headstones, he can usually make out the names and dates. Most of the people lived in the area in the 1800s up until the early 1900s.

That was a time in the Annapolis Valley when every tiny community seemed to have a cemetery and most were reserved for a single family, Skafte said.

Eventually, as people moved away, the cemeteries were no longer used.

"They stopped having burials because, well, it's a lot to maintain a cemetery, and a lot of them ran out of space because they only really allocated room for a dozen stones," he said.

Steve Skafte
Steve Skafte

Skafte often gets tips from locals about the location of an abandoned cemetery or finds a reference in a book or old map. The directions aren't always accurate but that's part of the adventure.

"Sometimes I'd go in circles out in the woods for an hour before I'd finally sort of spot some stones just through the brush," he said.

Skafte brings a few tools with him and cuts away the trees and moves the dirt to restore the graves as best he can. He said he's not an expert restorer but hopes making the sites visible will inspire others to properly preserve them.

Steve Skafte
Steve Skafte

His most notable find was discovering two children's headstones under the crawl space of a house in Cornwallis. The parents had buried the children in the yard, but when an addition to the house was built many years later, the children's graves were never moved.

"It's an eerie sort of feeling in almost total darkness with these old stones," Skafte said.

"It's like the ghost stories and the Indiana Jones-type things. It's the most you can feel like that without traveling around the world."

He hopes his efforts help the relatives of some of the people he's found.

"There's no way, I think that a lot of the families of these people buried here have the time or some of them even the mobility to go tramping all over the place in the hope that maybe they'll find it."

Skafte is documenting his progress on the Facebook group, Abandoned Cemeteries of Nova Scotia, where he encourages others to post their own discoveries.

Dave Hull
Dave Hull

Jill Mattinson is one of the group's members. Like Skafte, she's long been interested in preserving the past, but for her, it's a deeply personal endeavour.

She's spent the last several years working with her cousins to restore a cemetery near Oxford. When her family first visited the site, it was covered in large trees and some of the stones were in bad shape.

Thanks to the efforts of Mattinson's family and volunteers, the cemetery was cleared and a sign put up. There are 21 graves at the Mattinson Hansford Cemetery, and many are Mattinson's ancestors.

"It's just magical," she said. "The thing that struck me one day — and some days I'm reduced to tears, but not always —was standing by our great-grandfather's stone and realizing that our grandfather ... may have stood there in that very spot."

Mattinson is now trying to track down an even older cemetery where her great-great-great-grandparents were buried.

Steve Skafte
Steve Skafte

What's odd, said Skafte, is that he's looking for other people's history. He doesn't have many relatives of his own who are buried in Nova Scotia as his family came to the province from Ontario in the '70s and '80s.

The Annapolis Valley has always been his home though, and he feels a connection to the lives he's uncovering because of that.

"You contain wherever you're from," he said. "Since I've lived around Bridgetown my whole life, I have the same content as the earth in my bones."