Union Cemetery Receiving Vault

By Laura Suchan, Executive Director

A receiving vault (sometimes called a dead house) was a structure designed to temporarily store the dead during the winter months when it was too difficult to dig graves by hand.  When William Wells was exhumed in February 1895 from his grave in Union Cemetery, it took local gravediggers William and Joseph Luke three hours of hard work to carry out the task. William’s body was needed in a police investigation, and several of the Toronto daily newspapers were on site to report on the exhumation and noted the difficult conditions,

Heavy drifts had covered the spot in 3 feet of snow and access was only secured by shoveling a pathway to the place and no interments had been made in this part for a month.  The ground was frozen 2 feet deep and two gravediggers set to work with shovels and picks to clear away the stone and earth from the coffin.

The Globe, February 15, 1895
The exhumation of William Wells, Union Cemetery, February 1895. The Globe, February 15, 1895

Receiving vaults would be used to house the dead during the worst months of winter until burials could happen again. The receiving vaults would sometimes also be used to house bodies waiting for transportation or to have a mausoleum built. In times of epidemics, the vaults were used to store bodies until the graves could be dug.

To date, I haven’t found evidence of the early receiving vaults at Union Cemetery, however Melissa Cole and I were given access in 2019 to the receiving vault below the Union Cemetery mausoleum.  An Oshawa Daily Times article on the new mausoleum, dating from 1928,  briefly makes mention of the vault, “An important feature of the Oshawa mausoleum is that the basement contains forty-two crypts forming the Union Cemetery’s receiving vault for winter use…”

Union Cemetery’s receiving vault is located in the basement of the main mausoleum. Access to the vault is through a door at the back of the mausoleum. Inside the mausoleum is a lift (now boarded up) which lowered and raised coffins as needed.

Images: left column, top to bottom: Casket lift inside mausoleum; View of lift from inside the vault. It is boarded up and no longer used; Some of the 42 crypts in the vault. Right: Coffin trolley underneath the lift in the receiving vault.

One of the first things we noticed was the small size of the 42 crypts, unsuitable for the much larger casket dimensions of today.  

Today, the vault, like most others, is no longer in use. Once equipment such as steam shovels and backhoes came into use, graves could be dug in the winter, and receiving vaults were no longer needed.

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