Blog Post

Rites of Passage: Documenting Death in this Digital Age


A few summers ago, I had the opportunity to visit the former home of my close relatives and distant ancestors at Deux Rivieres, Ontario, Canada. One hot summer day, we packed into our cars and drove up Highway 17 as a group. We were going to spread the ashes of my great aunt who had recently passed. I didn't really know what to expect. My grandmother briefly explained the history of the small town, as well as early memories of living there on the border of Quebec and Ontario. Yet I could not imagine how it looked. When we arrived there was only a dirt road, a few trees, a small lodge for visitors, and the highway off to the side. Yet the crisp winds of the Ottawa River were nice and we ventured around that ancient town. I learned that the town was flooded during the reworking of the Ottawa River.It was amazing to walk out on the dock and imagine the former town, once alive, now under the dark blue water. I even thought I saw a bit of the church tower below the waters, but that may be a creation of my own memory - the way I give life to the town.

As we prepared to spread the ashes across the land, we headed for the small cemetery on a small bump or hill in the ground. As we walked amongst the tombstones I noticed some familiar family names. Many of them, specifically the military tombstones from the First and Second World Wars were in pretty good condition. Yet I noticed that many of the older tombstones had eroded from the elements. Names and dates were faded. Soon, I thought, these will be nothing more than blank markers for a human which once wandered this earth. We left the community and I prepared for my first year of university.

That autumn I had the opportunity to take a first year seminar in Digital History. The field as whole looks at documenting, making sense of, and understanding history in this digital age. In one brief class discussion, we looked at personal projects we could potentially take on in the field. The tombstones at Deux Rivieres came to mind and I suggested documenting and photographing them before nature erodes the information displayed upon them – in some cases, literally the only attachment the dead have to human memory. I soon forgot about the idea yet it always came back to me. The project remained in the backburners of my mind.

Today I decided to begin the process of turning this long held idea into reality. I created the website titled Rites of Passage. It is only now in its infancy and I suspect I will not get around to any hard work until this upcoming summer. Yet for now I will document initial findings. I aspire to present this largely unknown history to the greater public and to participate in the creation of digital history, if only for my own benefit.



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