Most Jewish Montrealers are familiar with the old cemetery located at the corner of Berri and Sauve Streets in Montreal's north-east end. Some out of towners attending the last family reunion recall our memorial and rededication at Zelig's gravesite in the pouring rain. With ankle deep ruts filled with water, we really didn't take too much time to look much beyond the next puddle. In the months since, there has been a number of articles about this cemetery forwarded to me. This is what I've gleaned from Montreal's The Canadian Jewish News and The Suburban.
The cemetery, known officially as Back River Memorial Gardens Cemetery, was started in 1883 but not under the best circumstances. The land was bought by Temple Emanu-El congregation, then in downtown Montreal. Congregation members were not pleased with the land, arguing it was too damp and watery and too far from the downtown synagogue. After having secured better burial land on Mount Royal, the Back River Cemetery was donated and sold to other downtown and east end congregations including Chevra Kadisha, B'nai Jacob, Sons of Israel and Temple Solomon. It was once the Jewish community's main burial ground, with about 5000 gravesites.
A century ago, this part of Montreal was where most common, hard-working Jews were buried. The Back River cemetery was not the first Jewish cemetery in Montreal. The Spanish and Portugese Congregation had established a gravesite on St. Janvier St. near Dominion Square in 1797. But cholera and other plagues made downtown Montrealers wary of gravesites too close to them. In 1854, the plots were unearthed and relocated to the Mount Royal Cemetery.
Now, over a century later, the ravages of time, as well as simple neglect and the impoverished state of some of the cemetery's ten congregations and burial societies, have taken an obvious toll in an area covering about 15 percent of the total grounds.
The cemetery really consists of two separate plots which are "kitty corner" from each other with a very busy intersection and metro (subway) station between them. The older "north" section, which appears to no longer have active burials, is on the north east corner of the intersection of Berri and Sauve. In one of my recent visits there, I noticed that the layout of the graves was quite disorganized. Even though there appears to have been some plan with discernible rows and aisles, many graves are in pathways, some appear at right angles to others for no apparent reason and others look like they were afterthoughts and just squeezed in. Pathways are overgrown with weeds and grass. Century old headstones, weathered by the harsh Montreal climates have toppled off their eroding bases and remain there because of the either the high cost of repair or the lack of attention by the descendants/relatives of the deceased. Many walkways are in disrepair and there are no proper toilet facilities or a fresh source of water for visitors, many of them elderly. Interesting though, a walk amongst the gravestones, one can see and feel the history of immigrant Jews who struggled with a new country called Canada, a city called Montreal and their own hopes for themselves and for their children. It also showed how hard life was. Several graves revealed death at young ages.
Periodic appeals to the community, particularly at Passover, have managed to raise desperately needed dollars to cover expensive work, such as repair and replacement of exterior fencing, gates and walls.
But with time marching on, the sense of urgency has only increased. Seymour Frank is the president of the Memorial Gardens Foundation, Inc., which represents ten Montreal congregations. Since their amalgamation over forty years ago, almost half of the cemetery grounds has been the responsibility of Chevra Kadisha and B'nai Jacob. The other half is comprised of synagogues such as Shomrim Laboker and Shaare Zion (which now mainly use other cemeteries for burials), as well as other burial societies. Some of those, such as Sons of Israel and Temple Solomon, can no longer contribute towards the memorial foundation's maintenance fund because their members are dying off. Although the Foundation helps coordinate cemetery maintenance, it can do little for individual gravesites. It is up to family members to look after graves.
It appears that there are only about 50 burials a year at the "southern" cemetery grounds since about 1960. (This is where Zelig and other Mayov's and Mayoff's are buried. See photograph on next page)
Some of the other Jewish cemeteries in Montreal are: Shaare Hashomayin, Spanish and Portugese (on Mount Royal), Eternal Gardens (in Beaconsfield) and the Baron de Hirsch (on De La Savane St.)
Credit for this article goes to Stephen McDougal, The Suburban; David Lazarus, The Montreal Jewish News; Allan Raymond, historian; Art Mayoff, The Family Descendant.
Update added March 2010:
A map of the Back River
Cemetery can be found at: http://iajgs.org/cemetery/quebec-qc/montreal.html . Click on the map thumbnail.
Link to Google view the cemeteries centered on the corner of Sauve and Berri. Double click near the #1 'balloon' for the street view. (If the link doesn't get you there, go to maps.google.com and search for 9782 Rue Berri, Montreal. )
An additional closeup view of the graves on the West side at the curve where Port Royal meets St. Denis is here.
The Official website of the Back River Cemetery is http://www.backrivermemorial.org/
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