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Book Reviews

Old Canadian Cemeteries: Places of Memory

by Jane Irwin; John de Visser, photog.

It’s hard to imagine anyone racking up more travel points than photographer John de Visser, who travelled extensively around Canada to shoot material for two collections: Peter and Douglas Richardson’s Canadian Churches and Jane Irwin’s Old Canadian Cemeteries. In their introductory note, the professors Richardson express how grateful they are for de Visser’s “fine eye and wonderful sense of light,” and well they should be, as should Irwin, for it is de Visser’s images that really make both books sparkle, with his heavenly sense for new angles and shafts of light.

For their part, the authors of both books manage to keep up with de Visser’s brilliance, covering their respective topics with impressive passion.

The Richardsons’ book suffers slightly from an overabundance of information. The authors aim to please too many readers – from architecture experts to ardent Christians to those interested in churches as historical and cultural entities – by writing about seemingly every aspect of the more than 250 churches highlighted in their book, which often causes drag. The book works brilliantly as a reference, though, thanks to its region-based chapter organization and extensive indexes. A commendable architectural glossary helps the reader distinguish the quoins from the muntins, and it’s easy to find specific churches in the impressively diverse range covered by the Richardsons.

By contrast, Irwin covers fewer cemeteries in depth, and wisely so, since burial grounds have varied much less than churches over the centuries. Irwin writes well about the historical backgrounds, the importance of cemeteries as records, and the power of our curiosity about the lives honoured by each gravestone. Irwin’s book lacks the helpful organization of the Richardsons’: a late chapter demystifying symbols really could have come earlier in the book to better serve the reader, and section titles such as “Lasting Memory” and “National Memory” neither demonstrate clarity nor pique curiosity.

These shortcomings are mild ones, though, and don’t detract too much overall from the rich historicism of the texts and the luminosity of de Visser’s photographs.