October 29, 2004 Features & Images » Feature Story

Remembering Whistler’s dead 

A community’s story is written by its people, and how those people are remembered

"A cemetery is a history of people – a perpetual record of yesterday and a sanctuary of peace and quiet today. A cemetery exists because every life is worth loving and remembering – always."

— Mary Lou Brannon, Brannon Monument Co.

Whistler’s locals, long known for their youth, vitality and for taking risks, do not usually make death a big part of their everyday lives. With Halloween, All Saints Day and Remembrance Day upon us, I wanted to explore how the Whistler community deals with death and mortality, the role of traditional cemeteries, and how this small mountain town remembers its dearly departed.

Since moving to Whistler three years ago, I have attended more funerals, memorials and wakes than I care to remember. This is not surprising given Whistler’s concentration of "extreme" athletes who are involved in backcountry skiing, snowboarding, kayaking, mountain biking and other adventures where the risk factor is relatively high. Whistler is a unique community, especially when it comes to remembering those who have passed on.

Walking through a town cemetery, one can gain some tangible insight into the local residents and the community’s history. A cemetery also provides quiet solitude and acts as a sort of outdoor museum for the local community.

Upon visiting the Whistler Cemetery, one is immediately struck by the absence of tombstones, monuments or covered mausoleums and the fact that there are barely 20 people buried there. Furthermore, none of the granite markers or memorial tablets are older than 1986 – the year the Whistler Cemetery opened. In Whistler’s case, its cemetery does not provide as "true" a reflection of the community as do some cemeteries. This is attributed to the fact that Whistler is still a relatively young town, many residents have their remains transported back to their birthplaces, and others prefer to have their ashes scattered over Whistler Mountain, rather than being interred in a cemetery.

According to the B.C. Historical News , "In older, more traditional cemeteries, custom has dictated that even in death, people prefer to be buried with those whom they share a common bond. In the past, ethnic or religious groups were usually buried together." This is evident in Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery, which has distinct sections for war veterans, the Chinese community and for Jews. In Whistler’s cemetery, divisions are not based on religion; rather, they are dictated by the types of sports one is involved in. This trend will likely change as the town matures and once more seniors choose to be buried here.

George McKenzie, owner/operator of Squamish Funeral Chapel Ltd. says, "a community is not a real community until it has a cemetery and people have laid down their roots." For many people this rings true when the local cemetery contains the remains of personalities or families, like artist Emily Carr and coal baron Robert Dunsmuir buried in Victoria’s famous Ross Bay Cemetery. Notable locals interred at the Whistler Cemetery include Myrtle Phillip, her sister-in-law Jean Tapley, Dave Murray and Seppo Makinen.

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