The spring of 2017 is not going to feature as Pat Baker’s favourite. On March 8, her third husband, Duff Scott, an 80-year-old investment banker, died of a heart attack. They’d been married 12 years.
Two weeks later, on March 21, still in the grip of burying and missing him, Ms. Baker received an e-mail from Jeremiah Sommer. She and her husband had hired Mr. Sommer the previous January to add a new patio to the back of their summer house on the shore of Lake Huron in Goderich, Ont.
The contractor explained that he’d “run into a bit of a situation”: A human skull, or part of one, had turned up in the backfill around the patio. As the law requires, he immediately called the Ontario Provincial Police.
Within two days, the OPP’s forensic anthropologist had cleared Ms. Baker as a suspect and concluded the skull was vintage – probably from the 1880s – and therefore not worthy of criminal investigation.
Ms. Baker thought the story might die there.
But she had overlooked Ontario’s seldom-mentioned but extremely fussy Funeral, Burial and Cremation Services Act (2002), which has been law since 2012 and insists that human remains found on private property be examined for anthropological potential. As of this month, a year and a half and many tons of dirt later, Ms. Baker was still trying to bury the damn skull.
Goderich (pop. 8,000 on a busy day) is a small town. News travels at whirlwind speed. The OPP arrived at the Baker residence to investigate the skull at dinner time. Officers hadn’t started stringing yellow tape across the property – a sturdy Edwardian brick pile where Ms. Baker has spent her summers since first grade – when Jim Donnelly, an 88-year-old retired lawyer and judge, spotted cruiser lights in his neighbour’s driveway. “Coppers across the street,” he remembered thinking. “I’ve been interested in coppers all my life.” His son-in-law is the former Crown attorney for nearby Perth County; his daughter has the same job in Huron County, the seat of Goderich (and also Alice Munro’s territory). All of the officers knew the judge. By morning, the skull was news on Global.
Ms. Baker had retreated to her winter house in Vero Beach, Fla., after her husband’s funeral and didn’t make it up to Goderich until April 3. By then, Mr. Donnelly had done some digging of his own. An amateur historian, he discovered that the properties on their stretch of St. George’s Crescent had originally been part of the churchyard of St. George’s Anglican Church. The church had burned to the ground in 1879 and was rebuilt closer to town. Early accounts claimed the original building had a graveyard, but there was no map of where the graves might be and no record of bodies being disinterred and moved to a new graveyard.
Mr. Donnelly advised Ms. Baker to talk to the local Anglican minister, who urged her to call the head office at the Anglican archdiocese in London – maybe it had records of burials. Ms. Baker telephoned twice, but no one returned her calls. Certainly there was no mention of remains or graves in any deed of sale since the church started selling off squares of its property in the 1850s. Maybe, Mr. Donnelly suggested, there was no need for further investigation. But he urged Ms. Baker to call the Ontario government – just to be sure.
That was the call that changed everything.
Nancy Watkins, the provincial registrar of burial sites, war graves, abandoned cemeteries and cemetery closures in the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services – a title that not surprisingly rang the bureaucracy warning bell in Ms. Baker’s brain – insisted Ms. Baker engage a provincially licensed archeologist, who would then conduct an archeological dig on her property. The words “archeological dig” came as a bit of a shock to Ms. Baker – “There are 400 archeologists in Ontario,” she said recently. “What do they do?” – as did the news that the dig had to be conducted at her expense.
So Ms. Baker asked the registrar an obvious question: What if she simply, you know, kicked the skull back into the hole and covered it up? The registrar replied that citizens who shirk their archeological responsibilities can face a fine of $50,000 and up to two years in jail.
The archeological study proceeded, and an endless series of reports ensued. The preliminary findings of the first archeologist Ms. Baker hired to assess “the project” described it as “complex in nature.” The report droned on like a lawn mower: “We feel it is important to have all concerned parties involved in the process of developing the work plan so that potential contingencies and issues can be addressed during the work plan and development phase.” No fewer than six separate entities would have a say in approving the results of the dig, including the decidedly non-local First Nations Burial Committee of Toronto, the Toronto Police Service, three provincial ministries and the office of the chief coroner. “It is anticipated that the screening of soils,” the report continued – including all the soil that had been dug up and carted away in the course of pouring the concrete rim of the patio, prior to the discovery of the skull – “will be a considerable effort and great expense to the landowner.”
Ms. Baker immediately sought a second opinion from an archeologist at Archaeological Services Inc. (ASI), a firm she found online. But ASI had the same advice. So she engaged its services.
By the middle of June, with the patio renovations frozen by law until the matter was resolved, ASI had completed Stage 1 of the archeological assessment the Burial Act demands. “The property exhibits potential for the discovery of pre-contact Aboriginal and Euro-Canadian archeological resources,” the report stated. The Baker backyard also qualified automatically for a Stage 2 “aboriginal dig” because the house sits on the shore of Lake Huron, a place Indigenous tribes lived for centuries before European contact. Stage 2 was to be followed by a Stage 3 burial site investigation, to search for possible Anglican bones beneath the well-groomed grass of 128 St. George’s Crescent.
The Stage 1 report was 23 single-spaced pages long and teeming with detail: the history of Goderich, the frequency of postal delivery in 1840 and the personal history of Edward Lindsay Elwood, the Anglican church’s second rector, who took the job as a preretirement posting after a busy career with his wife, an Irish girl named Ellen Yates, herself the daughter of a clergyman. A reader could be forgiven for concluding the author was being paid by the word.
What the report did not include – though not for lack of trying – was any hard evidence that there were graves in Ms. Baker’s backyard, a finding that would have increased the scope of the dig exponentially, possibly onto adjoining properties. The Anglican authorities of the time kept a burial register between 1835 and 1879 (the church was built in 1848) and recorded 656 interments. But it didn’t say where the bodies were buried – and there were lots of options. The Diocese of Huron, which oversaw Goderich, had no record of bodies being transferred out of the graveyard, but no record of them having been left there, either. “Back then, the churches changed their minds all the time” about graveyards, Eva MacDonald, ASI’s historical archeologist on the project, said recently. “In the 19th century, I’m not sure they even thought that was where the bodies would be staying." A graveyard was nothing more than a rest stop on the highway to heaven or hell. “Maybe that’s why the institutions were so cavalier about the land afterwards.”
By the time the culture division of the programs and services branch of the Archeology Programs Unit of the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport signed off on the Stage 1 assessment, an entire summer of life in the garden had been snatched away from Ms. Baker and her family. (She has five children and 11 grandchildren from three marriages.) “I can’t use the yard,” she said. “And my children and grandchildren can’t use the yard. And it’s a blight on the community.”
The aboriginal dig began the following spring, a year after the discovery of the vintage noggin. A team of archeologists bored holes in Ms. Baker’s manicured lawn – 30 centimetres across, two feet deep, at 10-metre intervals. The team dug four pits in the front yard, five more in the side yards and seven in the back. They found gaawiin gegoo, which is Ojibwe for “nothing.”
Stage 3, the hunt to discover the nature and extent of any “Euro-Canadian” remains (that is, from the Anglican churchyard), was under way by the end of May, 2018. The soil on both sides of the new concrete retaining wall of the patio was fully excavated to a depth of four feet – that’s where you encounter coffin edges, if you’re going to encounter them – and screened through six-millimetre wire mesh. Then, as per the law, everything within 10 metres of the spot where the skull had been found was dug up in three phases to a depth of 30 centimetres. (Had the excavators found other remains or coffin hardware, they would have been obligated to excavate another 10 metres from those relics, too.) The yard looked as if it had been hit by a small meteor.
Finally, on June 7, the Stage 2 resource assessment and Stage 3 assessment (burial site investigation) report reached a conclusion. “Despite careful scrutiny, no archeological resources were found.” A note of elegiac sadness was discernible in this conclusion.
Which isn’t to say no one hit pay dirt. The cost to Ms. Baker of the three archeological digs – preliminary, aboriginal and Euro-Canadian – was $24,811.98, HST included. That’s just for the archeologists’ time. She was also obligated to cover the cost of all the machinery used during the dig (backhoes, wide-shovel archeological sifters, post-hole routers and the like) – another $24,860, which included $2,000 for a fence around the site. Resodding the lawn and replacing her watering system has soaked up another $10,000. And she expects to fork out at least $8,000 more to replace her garden. Total: almost $70,000. (Had she been forced to redig the concrete perimeter of her patio, as the ministry initially demanded, she would have been out $30,000 more.) And while she can afford it – she runs a real-estate company that sells condominiums to Canadians and overseas buyers – “it ticks you off. It does. Because it’s a waste. You could give that money to a good cause.” Of course, by stipulating that owners pay for digs out of their own pockets, the provincial government has already designated archeology as a good cause. Ontarians must pay for their history.
The registrar of burials has leeway to compensate citizens who find bones on their doorsteps if an investigation will pose an “undue financial burden.” Whether a burden qualifies as undue is entirely at the registrar’s discretion. According to a spokesperson at Ontario’s Ministry of Government and Consumer Services, “the registrar may take into consideration, for example, the estimated cost of the investigation relative to the value of the landowner’s assets and liabilities, such as employment income, investments and debts.” Ms. Watkins, the current registrar, has ordered 25 burial investigations since her appointment in January, 2016; eight of them were on properties that were primary or secondary residences. No one has made a claim of undue burden in that time, and no charges have been laid for disobeying the registrar or disrespecting the bones of the dead.
Which isn’t to say the archeological community is unaware of the chaos a dig can create. Ms. MacDonald, the historical expert on the Baker dig, understood how unfairly fate was treating Ms. Baker. “She was just putting in a patio. And the poor lady ended up with a skull fragment rolling out of the back dirt.” On the other hand, Ms. MacDonald said, “archeology is important.”
The project manager on the Baker dig was paid $715 a day; the project archeologist, $550 a day. “From our point of view, we have to pay our employees a living wage,” Ms. MacDonald said. “I mean, it’s a business, being a professional archeologist. If a province was worried about people like Ms. Baker potentially running into financial trouble, they should set up some kind of fund to help private citizens.” Which in fact Ontario has, arbitrary as its rules are.
Finally, this summer, on July 26, the Ontario government informed Ms. Baker that her property was an “irregular burial site,” and that she was relieved of any further obligation to investigate its dead. But the cranium wasn’t quite done with her. “You must now ensure that the human remains from the site are interred in a cemetery located in the same municipality as the site or in an adjoining municipality,” the notice of declaration declared. Ms. Baker thought about bronzing the skull and keeping it on her mantelpiece, but that would have required declaring her property a cemetery (“in which case no one would ever buy this house”). Instead, she decided to bury the bothersome bone in a small plot in a cemetery in nearby Maitland. The plot and the reburial will likely cost $2,500. As usual, the rules state, “the landowner is responsible for all costs.”
To bury it, of course, she had to get it back. The problem was that, after 18 months of studies, no one knew where it was. “I am receiving conflicting information about the whereabouts of the remains,” the office of the registrar of burials informed Ms. Baker in an e-mail on July 11. The brainpan was AWOL. The forensic anthropologist who investigated the topper on behalf of the coroner’s office had left it on site for the attending archeologists; it was then allegedly transferred to the Centre of Forensic Sciences in Toronto, which now claimed it had never received the remains. Ms. Baker called her first archeologist, her second, her lawyer, the police: No one had the vertex. “They finally found it weeks later in the coroner’s office in Toronto.” Now it had to be shipped back to Goderich. Ignored in death, the braincase is insisting on a boisterous afterlife.
Ms. Baker wasn’t planning to hold a ceremony when she finally reburied it. “I could hardly bury my husband, never mind some guy from 1860 who’s ruined my house and cost me two summers. And all largely due to bureaucratic nonsense.”
Mr. Donnelly thinks Ms. Baker ought to have objected to the dig and fought the case to the Supreme Court as a challenge to the capriciousness of Ontario’s burial laws. (He thought the odds of winning the case were good because the complainant was a widow.) Instead, she chose a gentler path. A month ago, she planted a golden locust tree in her newly relandscaped backyard, in memory of Duff, her late husband, who died just as the skull was reborn. She chose a location close to, but not quite on, the spot where the cranial remains were found. The anonymous skull had ruptured the privacy of her grief, and she wanted to replace its stubborn spot in her mind with a living memory of her husband’s life. “It feels better now,” she said, looking out at the new tree from her living room. “His death feels better because I’ve solved the thing.”
Somewhat unbelievably, almost three months after the Yorick was cleared for reburial, she still didn’t have it. Her lawyer arranged for a local funeral home to “receive” the skull officially from the Toronto coroner, as per regulations. Also per regulations, Ms. Baker visited Goderich Town Hall to pay for the plot in the Maitland graveyard. The very nice ladies behind the counter, however, first needed to see the notice of declaration that freed Ms. Baker from further service to the noodle fragment. She drove home, unearthed the declaration, then drove back, whereupon the clerks told her she still needed an agreement of disposition from the registrar of burials before anyone could bury anything. Ms. Baker, ever organized, sent a request the following day. The following week, on Oct. 1, she at last received the registrar’s permission to bury the skull for good.
On Friday, Oct. 12, 19 months after the skull was unearthed, it was reburied in the urn garden of the Maitland cemetery. The fragment had been packed into a decorated white container the size of a cigar box. Chris Garnier, the funeral director who had officially received the skull, was graveside, in a pink tie, as was Mr. Donnelly. He planned eventually to contribute a plaque to the grave. Pat Baker wore a smart black Armani suit and black hose and a painted black and white mandala necklace. “I felt that I should,” she said. It was a sunny afternoon in a quiet corner of the cemetery; the stillness was unexpectedly moving.
“It is unusual to be burying the remains of someone we have never met, whose life we have never known and whose time we have never experienced,” Ms. Baker said, reading from notes she had made. She mentioned Goderich and the Anglican church. “So, on behalf of the God’s family to which you belonged, may you at last rest in peace. Amen.”
There was a pause.
“Pat, may I speak for a moment?” the judge said.
“Yes, you may.”
“We regret the interruption of your rest,” the judge said to the small hole in the ground. "And in football terms, this time you’re going deep.”
It was finally over. Respect had been paid.
In the meantime, Ms. Baker’s neighbours on St. George’s Crescent have been a little jittery. “No one in Goderich will ever pick up a bone again," she said. “Much less build a patio.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly placed the location for Alice Munro’s territory. This version has been corrected.