Monday, May 9, 2011

Book Review - A Better Place by Susan Smart

I had the opportunity this past week to read and review a new genealogy book. A Better Place: Death and Burial in Nineteenth-Century Ontario (Amazon affiliate link) by Susan Smart is describes the funeral practices in Ontario from pioneer days to the early 20th century. Susan Smart describes the book as not just focusing on death and dying, but on the aftermath.


The first part of the book shows how burying the dead has changed over time.  This includes a detailed look at a pioneer burial, Victorian funeral customs, cemetery evolution, funeral ettiquette and more. In the second part, the author gives some clues about researching the death and burial of your ancestors.

Many of the overall themes of the book are the same in Ontario as they are in England and the United States. What set this book apart is the details that relate to Ontario alone. The author uses first person accounts taken from family and county histories to illustrate the times. One such story details how a man died in his home miles from the nearest neighbor and how the wife had to find a way to bury him in the middle of winter with only 2 small children to help. I had never thought about how difficult this would be.

Speaking of winter, I knew that it was very difficult to dig a grave when the ground was frozen. Many had to store their dead until the spring. This book details a unique feature of Ontario cemeteries: the octagonal shaped tombs that stored caskets in Ontario cemeteries until the ground thawed. The author states that this design is only found in Ontario.

The book uses many black and white photos to illustrate funeral details. Many of the photos were taken at the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston, Texas. The photos are of the displays at the museum. I would have liked to see photos of Ontario women wearing mourning attire, instead of using a photo of mourning outfits on display. Other photos are of churches and cemeteries in Ontario as well as funeral memorabilia. 

As previously mentioned, the author uses lots of family and county histories to give an inside look at Ontario's past. The bibliography at the end of the book is filled with these sources. It also states which ones are avaiable thorough Internet Archive (at the time the book was written). I downloaded a few that give details of where my ancestors lived. In the second part of the book, the author gives some hints about how to research the death of your Ontario ancestors. I found a few new websites in this section and a few more ideas to help break down my brick walls.



This book gave me a great history of burial customs in Ontario and how they were influenced by the traditions in England and the United States. The resources included in the book will ensure that I continue to learn more about my ancestors' lives.

If you have ancestors from Ontario and want to know more about their burial traditions, consider picking up a copy of this book. Even if you don't have Ontario ancestors, this book can provide you with a better understanding of the ever changing funeral customs.

Disclosure: Dundurn sent me a complimentary copy to write a fair review. Amazon affiliate links give me a small portion of your purchase price with no extra cost to you.

Check out more genealogy books that I have read and recommend in my Amazon store.

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