Suzanne Rent continues her series of profiles of women over 50 who, in their own often quiet ways, make significant contributions to our society outside of the corporate world.

Deborah Trask and I first meet on a Tuesday in April at 11am at The Old Burying Ground, a square plot in between Dalhousie’s Sexton campus, the courthouse on Spring Garden Road, St. Mary’s Basilica, and St. Matthew’s United Church on Barrington Street. 

A couple of weeks prior when I asked Trask for an interview, she suggested we meet in the historic cemetery late in the morning because that’s when the light is the best. 

The Old Burying Ground is the oldest cemetery in the city and the first cemetery in Canada to be designated a National Historic Site. And Trask knows every inch of its grounds and stones. She gets around with a walker and manoeuvres around the paths of the old cemetery quite well. At one point, she puts her walker aside and takes up a purple cane so we can step off the path and get a closer look at some of the headstones. 

She leads us to a small headstone close to the fence along Spring Garden Road. Trask reads its inscription aloud: “Malachi Salter, son of Mr. Malachy Salter, Susanna Salter, age two years, four months. Died Aug. 14, 1752.” This gravestone, Trask tells me, is the oldest in this cemetery.

Trask was right about the light, but the early April winds get the best of us, so we wrap up our chat and brief tour, and head to a coffee shop on Barrington Street.

Three old headstones in a cemetery. The two headstones in the back row are larger and there's a smaller headstone in front. The headstones have images of cherubs or angels engraved and cursive writing engraved on them. There are white lichens growing on the stones.
A small headstone for Malachi Salter, age two years, four months, at The Old Burying Ground. This stone is the oldest in the cemetery. Credit: Suzanne Rent

Trask, 72, has been documenting the history of Nova Scotia’s cemeteries for decades. She’s the go-to expert on the oldest headstones across the province. Trask serves as the secretary on board of The Old Burying Ground’s foundation. She knows about the stone carvers who engraved the words and symbols on the stones, how the work was done, and what those engravings and symbols on the stones all mean.

“What’s important in our history is that people have been here before,” Trask said. “People don’t think about the fact that there’s this continuum of time, which is what history is … I find that pointing out [to people] that those gravestones that are dated 1775 really are from 1775. And they’ve been standing outside for 200 some years.”

‘It was a revelation to me’

Trask, who grew up in Montreal, spent the summers in Nova Scotia with her parents, Stewart and Gwen. She ended up back in Nova Scotia for school and attended Acadia University where she started out studying economics, a subject she said was all speculative. That was in the early 1970s, and she was one of a few women in the program.

But she didn’t get along with the department head. It was difficult for women in university during those days, she said. So, she left economics, spent time touring Europe, and when she went back to school, she took a year’s worth of history courses. She had a “wonderful time,” and got a job before graduation.

“And here I am, 50 years later,” she said.

Her research on cemeteries started while she was a student and was hired to research people who settled in the Wolfville area. That was “way before” the internet, she said, so there were only so many sources available to research.

Trask was running out of ideas when she wandered into the old cemetery on Main Street, built in 1763.

“And there they were,” Trask said. “It was a revelation to me.”

Decades at the museum, a book in two weeks

Trask went on to work as a curator for the Nova Scotia Museum for 30 years. One of the projects she worked on early on was a school bulletin on history in various Nova Scotia communities that teachers could use in the classroom. Those history lessons included details on graveyards.

“There were graveyards in every community, so to make it a field trip that included instructions on how to behave,” Trask said. “It was very popular until they started cracking down on school trips. I run into [a student] every once in a while who learned history that way.”

Several years into her job at the museum, Trask already had extensive knowledge of Nova Scotia’s gravestones and cemeteries, so her boss suggested she put together a book on her research. The deadline? Two weeks.

“By then I was known as the cemetery person,” she said.

A book cover a pale beige that says "Life how short, eternity how long: Gravestone Carving and Carvers in Nova Scotia, An Illustrated Study" by Deborah Trask. There's a photo of a very old headstone that says "here lies the body of Martha Harris, wife of Daniel Harris." An image of an angel with wings is carved above the text.
Deborah Trask’s book from 1978.

The result was Life How Short Eternity How Long: Gravestone Carving and Carvers in Nova Scotia, which was published in 1978, and includes plenty of photos taken by Trask herself, along with details on the best time of day to take pictures (it’s available at the Halifax Public Libraries, and Trask said you can still find copies at second-hand bookstores).

Over the years, Trask has given talks about Nova Scotia’s cemeteries, but she kept studying cemeteries and headstones, looking at all the details, the engravings, and the symbols. It tied in with her museum work of studying things, helping other people identify objects they’d bring in.

“You don’t go to school to learn about things,” she said. “You learn how to look at things and how to analyze what you’re looking at it. And the more you look at it, the more you know. That’s how you get to know stuff. You observe it.”

The oldest headstones, like the ones in The Old Burying Ground, have symbols such as skulls.

“Even if you’re not that literate, you can see some reference there to human remains,” Trask said.

Over time, the symbols change. Angels and other religious symbols replaced symbols of death. Trask said she’s studied the stones for so long, she learned there were only about 10 stone carvers in Halifax doing the work. In some cases, the headstones were brought in from Boston, the closest urban centre where such work was done.

Trask gets a lot of questions about cemeteries in Nova Scotia, and not all have to do with the stones or who’s buried under them. She recalls getting a phone call from a local reporter who left a message for her and wanted to talk about The Old Burying Ground and ghosts.

“I called her up and said I will meet you down there,” Trask said. “We’re not going to talk about ghosts. These are gravestones that commemorate real people. You don’t have to make this up. There are 10,000 people buried in that two-acre site and only a fraction of those graves have markers. I have run into ghosts in cemeteries. It’s not fun, but it’s not something you promote. Ghosts are not the story. People’s memories of other stories, that’s the story. When I was done, I said ‘now, what is your story going to be about?’ and she said, ‘Well, it’s not going to be about ghosts.’ Success.”

“There’s no more a benign place, in an urban space especially. You get a little calm, green, catch your breath.”

I don’t ask her about the ghosts.

‘A monumental figure’

Craig Ferguson runs the Twitter account Dead in Halifax where he shares photos of headstones from Halifax’s oldest cemeteries, including The Old Burying Ground. He also serves on the cemetery’s board of directors with Trask. When he first met Trask, he took along a copy of her 1978 book, so she could sign it — Trask remembers that meeting, too, and said she joked with Ferguson “how old were you in 1978?”

But Ferguson said he had been trying to connect with Trask months before that, saying he had a tough time tracking her down because she’s like “a bit of a ghost.”

“I had, honestly, been a little bit intimidated by her because she represents, not just this wealth of knowledge of graveyards, cemeteries, and burying grounds in Nova Scotia, but also just this massive body of work she’s compiled,” Ferguson said in an interview. “Deborah printed that one book, but she has another 10 books in her, I swear.”

Old headstones in a cemetery on a sunny spring day. The trees don't have their leaves and there's a white stone with with a tall steeple in the background.
The Old Burying Ground in Halifax in early April. Credit: Suzanne Rent

Ferguson credits Trask for the preservation of many of Nova Scotia’s gravestones and cemeteries.

“We think of something like The Old Burying Ground as having been there forever, you know. But when Deborah got involved, it had fallen into a state of disrepair and obviously there were a lot of people involved in the 80s and the first restoration effort on The Old Burying Ground, but Deborah was right there in the mix,” he said. “If you start poking around about gravestones and cemeteries in Nova Scotia, all roads lead to Deborah. You cannot avoid her. She’s a monumental figure, excuse the pun, in that world.”

Ferguson said he’s got to know Trask besides her work and said “she’s a really sly character and she has a real acid wit.” And he said it’s not just her passion for the work and the number of years she’s spent on research and preservation. He said Trask has a keen interest in material history, the history of things, like Nova Scotia glass, which she also wrote about in Fragile and Fanciful: The Story of Nova Scotia Glass. Ferguson said our history, and even our present, has benefitted from her work and wisdom.

“If you ever had a quiet walk through a cemetery when you needed a moment to yourself, and you’ve been able to admire a gravestone that’s standing upright after 200, 250 years, just enjoying that quiet moment connecting with the past, you owe something to Deborah Trask.”

Beyond the cemetery walls

Trask has accomplished much more than her work on gravestones and cemeteries. She took early retirement from the museum 20 years ago, started a small museum consulting business and for a time, ran the Mahone Bay Museum. Trask has lived in Chester Basin since 1985, she still offers advice on cemetery preservation to groups across Nova Scotia, and she worked on contracts for the Royal Naval Burying Ground at Stadacona, where she proved there were 600 undocumented gravesites. Another contract had her working at Fort Massey Cemetery on Queen Street. Another project had her working with a friend, Sally Ross, a “fervent defender of the Acadians,” who wanted to document pre-Deportation cemeteries. They got a grant for the work and spent one summer going to Nova Scotia’s Acadian communities, documenting headstones and cemeteries.

Some of the stones Trask has studied over the years stand out. There’s one in The Old Burying Ground carved by a stoneworker who came to Nova Scotia to work on Province House. The stone was for his wife, and while he was a stone carver, engraving the letters wasn’t his expertise, so the engraving curves along the stone with the letters getting smaller each time. That lettering, Trask said, was an outpouring of grief onto the stone.

Trask said her late friend, Heather Lawson, a master stone carver who Trask said had a “natural ability,” created her a stone for her father, who died in January 2012. Trask designed it and her brother, who is a calligrapher, did the text.

“We knew what we wanted,” she said.

She has a few favourite cemeteries, too, particularly the old Planter cemeteries like the one in Liverpool and the Chebogue Cemetery in Yarmouth County. The graveyard on Main Street in Wolfville, where she did that research as a student, remains a favourite, too.

Trask is also on the program committee with the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Society and helps book performers (the festival is Aug. 10 to 13). And she’s the heritage advisor for the Town of Mahone Bay, a role the town council appointed her to a few years ago.

A battle with Lyme disease

Back in 2015, Trask experienced a health scare. She was at a music festival in Yarmouth when she couldn’t stop falling. She was staying at her mother’s house when one morning she woke up and couldn’t walk. An ambulance took her to Yarmouth Regional Hospital, but physicians there couldn’t figure out what was wrong. They sent her to the Halifax Infirmary where Trask had more tests, including a spinal tap. Eventually, she got a diagnosis.

“It was Lisa Barrett herself who woke me up in the Infirmary and said a team of doctors determined I had Lyme disease,” Trask said.

So, she was treated for Lyme and started to get better, but by the time she was diagnosed, all the nerves at the tops of her legs were dead, so she had to learn to walk again. That meant a several-week stint in the Nova Scotia Rehabilitation Centre.

“It hits you where you’re weakest,” she said of the disease. “I only have praise for the way that was handled.”

Trask said she couldn’t recall being bitten by a tick, but doctors told her she was likely bitten about six months before she learned so had Lyme, so the summer, early fall of 2015.

“I said it probably happened in a cemetery somewhere,” Trask said. “They’re everywhere and you just have to pay closer attention.”

‘I don’t think about death

Nova Scotia’s Monuments and Cemeteries Protection Act came into law in 1998, during Premier Russell MacLellan’s minority government. Trask said she helped push for that legislation and said it’s one of her proudest achievements. Under that law, once a parcel of land is used for burial of human remains, it can’t be used for anything else.

“Who’s going to vote against looking after graves and cemeteries? I don’t know if there have been any real tests of it, either.”

The Old Burying Ground, which has municipal, provincial, and federal heritage status, is what it is today because of Trask’s work. She looks at it now and sees the work to be done, but it’s not what others would like to see done. “People related to it,” Trask said of the site.

“We need to keep it safe and up with modern requirements for access without changing the overall feeling of the place,” she said. “Everyone once in a while someone comes up and wants to put a fancy plaza and nicer gardens. And I don’t think so.

But there’s one thing Trask doesn’t think about when she thinks about cemeteries.

“I don’t think about death,” she said. Gravestones are just a place. Death is something else entirely.”

Suzanne Rent is a writer, editor, and researcher. You can follow her on Twitter @Suzanne_Rent and on Mastodon

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  1. Thanks for posting this article. I really enjoyed reading it. My favorite cemetery is Camp Hill followed by Mount Olivet. I visit the headstones of long gone relatives and enjoy the peace and quiet. These places must be maintained and preserved.