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.

Pioneer Memorial Gardens

The history of the Pioneer Memorial Gardens Cemetery spans more than a century.  In the early 19th century, John B. Warren received the land where the cemetery currently sits as part of a crown grant.  In 1847, he donated the 115’ frontage and 122’ deep property on “Protestant Hill” to the Wesleyan Methodist Church for a church and cemetery.  The Pioneer Cemetery on Oshawa’s Bond Street became the churchyard of the Methodist Church.  It should be noted that prior to this date, records indicate that the land had been previously used as a burial ground.  In fact, the earliest burial recorded is that of Sabine Dearborn, wife of Samuel Dearborn, in 1830.

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This cemetery contained burials of many well-to-do and dedicated church members.  The family plots were separated from the others by various means; wrought iron fences, decorative posts with ornamental tops connected by chains, bars or stone borders.  An array of wild pink roses and purple lilacs were also plentiful.

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The Methodists had the oldest congregation in the Township.  Between 1867 and 1868, a new Methodist Church was built on Simcoe Street and was ready for service in 1868.  The old church building was sold and then removed, and the basement excavation was filled in.  To ensure that no animals pasturing on the public road could enter, a high wooden picket fence with a protective gate was built across the front of the property.

In the early 1900s the high wooden picket fence was removed as well at the protective gate.  A modern wire fence then enclosed the property.  A couple by the name of Mr. And Mrs. Richard Taylor bought the south-east portion of the front of the property that had been for sale.  Their house was erected and their children and grandchildren were members of the Simcoe Street Church.  It appears that the unsold portion of the property was still used for burials, the last being that of Barbara Hurd in 1906.

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In 1945, due to the deplorable state of the cemetery, the Board of the Simcoe Street United Church decided the property should be cleaned up, and that a plan be adopted that would assure its preservation for years to come.  A committee was headed by George Ansley who decided that the neglected cemetery would be transformed into a Memorial Garden.  Many of the families removed the remains of relatives to Union Cemetery leaving the old graveyard practically empty.  However, many of the tombstones were left behind marking the graves of pioneers.  These were lifted, cleaned and eventually arranged on cement pillars in a cairn in the centre of the property.

Harriett (Cock) Guy
Headstone for Harriet Guy (nee Cock), wife of Thomas Guy Jr. and daughter of ‘Granny’ whose lifesized painting is on display in the Verna Conant Gallery

Today the area is fenced and owned and maintained by the City.  A complete listing of the names that appear in the cairn can be found in the archival collection of the Oshawa Museum, and at the Durham Chapter of the Ontario Genealogical Society.