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.

You Asked, We Answered: Where are the Henrys Buried?

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

While on tour, our Visitor Hosts are often asked questions that they may not be able to answer in that moment. However, we take note of the questions and try to find the answers afterwards. Here is one such question asked during a tour.

Where are the Henrys buried?

A large number of the Henry Family are buried in the cemetery which has become known as the Port Oshawa Pioneer Cemetery.  This cemetery may be one of the oldest in our community with an interesting history.


The earliest known burial, based on headstones, is that of Nancy Henry, the mother of Thomas, who died in 1816.  As described in Thomas’s memoirs:

Autumn came and wreathed its many colored drapery around the mighty forests’ head, but the bright tints faded, the red leaves fell, and when the heavy frosts came down on the bare brown earth, a great affliction fell on the little household in their lonely, forest home. The wife and mother died.  Almost without precursor or warning she went, and left anguish and desolation behind her. Far from sympathizing friends, far from religious comforters, with none but her own little family around her, she bowed her head, and closed her eyes in death… [S]he was buried with Christian rites, on a little hill beside the lake… (The Annotated Memoirs of Rev. Thomas Henry, page 27).

Grave M13

It is likely this cemetery had been used for burials before the death of Nancy, but there are no burial records existing from that time.

Thomas is laid to rest at this cemetery, as are both his wives, his father John, five of his children, and three grandchildren.

PicMonkey Image
Headstone for Thomas Henry & family; left photo dates to 1947 and shows original topper for headstone.  It is no longer there (right photo)

Originally, this cemetery was located to the east of the harbour, on an area known as Gifford’s Hill, however, the cemetery was moved to Bonnie Brae Point in 1975 to accommodate harbour expansion.  There were 195 individuals removed to the point, and an additional ten burials have taken place since then.

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.


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.


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.


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.

About the Elim Cemetery

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

A wonderful resource for historical research is our 1877 County of Ontario Atlas.  It shows all townships in Ontario County (the forerunner to the Regional Municipality of Durham, with some boundary adjustments), towns, villages, and hamlets, and often these maps show details like locations of schools, churches and townships.

1867 Centennial Map

Looking at the map for East Whitby Township, I noticed a church and cemetery at the southeast corner of Concession 6, Lot 7.  This today is the northwest corner of Wilson Road and Winchester Road.  Interest piqued, I learned that this is known as the Elim Cemetery, what was likely a private burial ground, located on land owned (in 1877) by Henry Graham.

As can happen through the years, there appears to be stories that have evolved about this cemetery.  Here’s what we know with certainty about this apparently abandoned burial ground.


First, I will say, this parcel of land is still zoned as a cemetery and appears to be its own parcel of land, according to the Interactive Mapping System from the City of Oshawa.  This cemetery is on the Heritage Inventory, prepared by Heritage Oshawa, the city’s Heritage Advisory Committee, as a property of interest.

As mentioned, the cemetery appears in the 1877 Atlas; the next Atlas we have in our collection dates to 1895, and it does not show details like cemeteries or schools in the township views.  It does note Union Cemetery’s location, but bear in mind, Union was occupying a good number of acres and was a major burial ground for Oshawa and Whitby at that time.


In the archival holdings, there is an undated transcription of five graves, commemorating Jacob Raicard (died 1872, aged 46), David Stephens (died 1877, aged 14), Mary Graham, nee Underwood (died 1877, aged 43), Mahala G Stephens (died 1869, aged 19), and Robert Henry Graham (died 1877, aged 13).  Today, there appears to be only one marker remaining, and interestingly, it wasn’t included in the original transcription. It is for [     ] Elizabeth Postil, died 1863, aged 17 (stone broken, and her first name appears to be missing).  In its inventory, Heritage Oshawa dates the cemetery as 1863, likely due to this surviving headstone.


Postil’s headstone is at the base of a stone pillar, encased in cement, by the entrance to this cemetery.  This pillar can add some confusion to this cemetery as it may have been moved from Elmcroft Farm/Windfield Farms.  Here is a photo of the pillar:


Note, the stone which states ‘Lot 12 Con 5 East Whitby,’ and this cemetery is most certainly located on Lot 7, Con 6.  Information available from Windfield Farms confirms that Elmcroft was located at Lot 12 Concession 5.  The Elim Cemetery stone certainly looks different from the one that says Elmcroft.  It is interesting to note that Elmcroft farm started by George McLaughlin, son of Robert McLaughlin and brother of Col. Sam, and the land stayed in the McLaughlin family until it was purchased by EP Taylor, who would establish Windfield Farms.


As mentioned, the cemetery was located on land owned by Henry Graham, and two of his family members are buried here, his wife and son.  Robert and Mary Underwood were married in 1860 and were parents to Annie, Robert, John, Ruth, and Margaret.  Mary died in January 1877 of Pthysis, or tuberculosis.  Their son Robert died a few months after, in June, of consumption, another term for tuberculosis.  It appears sometime between 1877 and 1881, Robert remarried, and he passed away in 1912 in Orangeville.

According to records, there also appears to be two members of the Stephens family buried in the cemetery, Mahala and David, the children of Walter and Fanny Stephens.  Walter and Fanny lived around Lot 5 Concession 5 in East Whitby, the parents of 9 children; they are both resting in Union Cemetery.

Jacob Raicard was 46 years old when he died in 1872, the son of Mark and Catherine, as per his headstone.  His was married to Alvira, and it appears that they had four children.  He was born in the US, immigrated to Quebec (as per the 1861 Census) but later moved to East Whitby Township (as per the 1871 Census).

Finally, the lone remaining headstone is for Anne Elizabeth Postil.  She was the daughter of William and Sarah, the eldest of their children, who also included Francis, Frederick, Elisa, Mary, George, and Charles.  Sometime between 1871 and 1881, the family relocated to Moore Township, Lambton County, which is where William and Sarah passed away, both in 1905.


Elim Cemetery appears to have been a private burial ground, used by people who farmed in northeast East Whitby Township, and unfortunately, due to the lack of records, it is unclear when it stopped being used as a burial ground.  Today it is a quiet piece of land, tucked away from busy Winchester Road, serving as a somber resting place for 19th century settlers.

Union Cemetery is a Real Spot of Beauty

From: Oshawa Daily Reformer 30 June 1927

Oldest Section of Cemetery Grew up About Old Brick Church of Which the Rev. Robert H. Thornton, D.D., was Founder and Life Long Pastor – Board of Governors Now Handles Cemetery Affairs

Union Cemetery, west of the municipal boundaries on King west is the other Oshawa Oshawa – a forever silent city of the dead.  Richly endowed by nature and adorned by skillful gardencraft, the solemn acres of the municipal necropolis couch their reminder of mortality’s common fate in stately beauty.  Its thousands of memorials link the wilderness days of Ontario County with its modern development.  The moss grown headstone of the pioneers are but a part of an empire which rules the hallowed dust of generations.

Annotation 2019-04-12 113902


The best local authorities find that the oldest section of what is now known as Union Cemetery grew up about the old Brick church of which the Rev. Robert H. Thornton, D.D., was the founder and life-long pastor.  St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church of the United Church of Canada on Simcoe Street is the existing body of that pioneer stronghold of Christian worship.

About 1875, however, a company was formed to lay out the cemetery adjoining the elder burial place.  The company was known as the Union Cemetery Company, and functioned until 1922 when, owing to the beneficence of Mr. George W. McLaughlin, it and the older mortuary property were purchased and presented to the City of Oshawa, and along with that [part] went deeds to land which would provide for necessity of future expansion.

A Board of Governors was appointed and the financing of the cemetery on a perpetual upkeep basis was effected.  This system provides a trust fund which draws a percentage from the purchase price of each grave, perpetually set aside to the upkeep of the graves and memorials, and beautification of the cemetery in general.

Annotation 2019-04-12 113920

While this plan of financing works automatically only in the newer development, families interested in the older parts of the cemetery are permitted to endow their plots under the upkeep plan.  Many have taken advantage of this scheme, and it is expected that before very long only the very oldest sections of the united cemeteries will have their upkeep provided for out of community resources.

In 1924 the Union Cemetery Mausoleum was erected.  This beautiful citadel of death provides vaults for above-ground interment, both individually and for groups, even up to private rooms.  It has a central chapel through the stained glass window of which the sun’s light falls in a colourful benediction.  The basement of the mausoleum is the cemetery’s receiving vault for winter funerals.

The Board of Governors for 1927 include D.A. Valleay, chairman; A. J. Stalter, A.A. Crowle, and C.J. Wilcox.  The city being represented by the mayor by virtue of office.

The Oshawa Museum is pleased to partner with Union Cemetery in offering historical walking tours on the first Saturday of the Month, May to August, starting at 2pm.  For more info, please contact the Museum.

Scenes from the Cemetery is also returning in 2019 – Sept 7 & 8! Tickets on sale later this summer.