One of most poignant epitaphs I’ve ever seen appears on twin gravemarkers in West Kootenay’s most remote cemetery.
The Hamel siblings, Adélia Annee Lilly and Willy Joseph Alphonse, died at Comaplix, on the northeast arm of Upper Arrow Lake, in 1903. Their gravemarkers read in French: Quand on est pur comme à ton âge le dernier jour est le plus beau. Translated, “When one is pure as at your age, the last day is the most beautiful.”
I’ve written about them before and the little cemetery where they are buried — which is accessible only by boat and only if you know where to look. But thanks to an online family tree and Google, I can add more about both the family and the epitaph.
The graves of Lilly and Willy Hamel are seen at Comaplix in 2005.
Their father was Alphonse Joseph Hamel (also spelled Hamell and Hammill), born Oct. 6, 1859, in St. Jean Deschaillons, Que. to Alexis Hamel and Marie Margurite Lavigne. He had at least nine siblings plus two half-siblings.
Alphonse’s wife, Marie Fridoline Hebert, was born on Jan. 4, 1871 in St. Edouard, Que. to Hormidas Hebert and Marie Odile Beaudin. She had ten siblings.
On the 1891 census they were both shown as single and living in New Westminster. Alphonse was working as a cook in a boarding house while Marie’s entire family was farming; her mother had recently died in Richmond.
They wed at Vancouver on Nov. 15, 1892; Alphonse was 33 and Marie was 22. One of the witnesses was George Mercier, but I can’t make out the name of the other. (Their wedding registration is pictured at right.)
According to the 1901 census, their daughter Lilly was born on May 19, 1894, but her birth was not registered. Her death registration indicates she was born at Steveston.
Another child was also born to the family at Steveston on Sept. 7, 1896, but stillborn. Alphonse was away for some reason, so the death registration was filled out by an H. Trueman of New Westminster.
The Hamels moved to the interior sometime in the next two years, as the 1901 census indicates Willy was born on July 10, 1898 and his death registration gives his place of birth as Revelstoke. The census data would make them eight and four when they died, respectively; the death registrations eight and three; and their grave markers nine and six.
The Revelstoke Herald of Aug. 21, 1901 reported:
Mr. Hamell had quite a little excitement at his ranche [sic] the other day. A brown bear came down to the ranche and carried one of his best pigs. Mr. Hammil offered $10 to any person who would shoot the bear. Mr. Devebro [sic] of Comaplix accepted the offer and succeeded in killing the bear. Mr. Hamill’s ranch, which is situated about three miles from Comaplix, is the popular stopping place between Comaplix and Camborne. The ranch produces an excellent variety of vegetables with which Mr. Hamill supplies the local market.
There were a few other newspaper mentions of the family:
J.H. Young of Comaplix was badly hurt on Aug. 25 by being thrown from his horse near Hamill’s ranch, where he has been laid up ever since … (Revelstoke Herald, Sept. 14, 1901)
Mrs. Hammill of Comaplix and her two children are in town visiting friends for a few days. (Revelstoke Herald, Oct. 2, 1901)
Last Thursday a pleasant dance was given at the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Hamell on the Comaplix wagon road. A large number of friends from Comaplix and Thomson’s Landing attended and a most thoroughly enjoyable evening was spent. (Revelstoke Herald, Feb. 26, 1902)
A son, Ernest George, was born to them at Revelstoke on July 21, 1902.
But I can’t imagine the grief Alphonse and Marie experienced on March 12, 1903 when malignant scarlet fever claimed both Lilly and Willy. Near as I can tell, they were the first to be buried at Comaplix. However, news of their passing does not seem to have appeared in any newspaper.
Their epitaph, I have only just learned, comes from a poem by Jean Reboul entitled L’Ange Et L’Enfant (The Angel and the Child), written in 1828. This is the full poem, side-by-side with Google’s literal translation (and a bit of human assistance).
Un ange au radieux visage, An angel of radiant face
Penché sur le bord d’un berceau, Leaning over the edge of a cradle,
Semblait contempler son image, Seemed to contemplate his image,
Comme dans l’onde d’un ruisseau. As in the wave of a stream.
Charmant infant qui me ressemble, “Lovely child who looks like me,
Disait-il, oh viens avec moi! He said, “oh come with me!”
Viens, nous serons heureux ensemble. Come, we will be happy together.
La terre est indigne de toi. The earth is unworthy of you.
La jamais entière allégresse; The happiness never entire;
L’âme y souffre de ses plaisirs; The soul suffers from its pleasures there;
Les cris de joie ont leur tristesse, The cries of joy have their sadness,
Et les voluptés leurs soupirs. And the sensual delights their sighs.
La crainte est de toutes les fêtes; Fear is at every party;
Jamais un jour calme et serein Never a calm and serene day
Du choc ténébreux des tempêtes In the dark shock of the storms
N’a garanti le lendemain There is no guarantee of tomorrow.
Eh quoi! les chagrins, les alarmes What! That sorrows, alarms
Viendraient troubler ce front si pur? Would come trouble this brow so pure?
Et par l’amertume des larmes And by the bitterness of tears
Je ternirais ces yeux d’azur! I would tarnish these azure eyes!
Non, non! dans les champs de l’espace No, no! In the fields of space
Avec moi tu vas t’envoler; With me you will fly away;
La Providence te fait grâce Providence spares you
Des jours, que tu devais couler. The days you had to throw away.
Que personne dans ta demeure May no one in your home
N’obscurcisse ses vêtements; Darken their clothes;
Qu’on accueille ta derniere heure May your last hour be welcomed
Ainsi que tes premiers moments. Just as your first moments.
Que les fronts y soient sans nuage, May the brows there be unclouded
Que rien n’y révèle un tombeau: May nothing there reveal a tomb:
Quand on est pur comme à ton âge, When one is pure as at your age,
Le dernier jour est le plus beau. The last day is the most beautiful.
Et secouant ses blanches ailes, And shaking his white wings,
L’ange à ces mots prit son essor The angel with these words took flight
Vers les demeurs éternelles To the eternal home
Pauvre mère! ton fils est mort Poor mother! Your son is dead
There is a human-generated translation here and another here. These translate the epitaph as “Of so unspotted and pure a thing/The loveliest morning is still the last,” and “To one within thy tender age/Thy last must be thy brightest day.” A version was also adapted as a Lutheran hymn.
Marie Hamel gave birth to a daughter at Comaplix on Feb. 27, 1904. She was named Fridoline, her mother’s middle name. But the family did not remain in the area much longer.
The Revelstoke Herald announced on Aug. 25, 1904: “Comaplix, Aug. 23 – Alphonse Hammil, a farmer of this vicinity, sold out his farm to John de Rose last Tuesday. The deeds were made out in Revelstoke on Wednesday last.”
The Revelstoke Kootenay Mail added two days later: “Alphonse Hammil has sold his 160 acre farm at Comaplix to John de Rose for $3,000.” On Sept. 1 the Herald concluded: “Mr. and Mrs. Hammil, formerly of Comaplix, left on Wednesday morning for Winnipeg where they will reside in future.”
And for a long time, that was the last I knew about the Hamels. But the online family tree compiled by Michelle Anderson reveals they had another daughter in Winnipeg, Louise Anne, born on Oct. 20, 1906. Sometime in the next two years they moved to the US, where George Joseph was born on April 2, 1911 at Worcester, Mass. and Alphonse Joseph Jr. was born Jan. 22, 1913 at Manchester, New Hampshire.
On the 1910 US census, the family is shown running a grocery store in Worcester. On the 1920 and 1930 census, Alphonse is a napper at a cotton mill in Manchester (creating the fuzzy nap on flannel and other textiles).
Marie Fridoline Hebert Hamel died of liver cancer on Dec. 13, 1930 at Manchester, age 59. Alphonse Joseph Hamel Sr. died on July 19, 1949, also at Manchester, age 90.
Of their children, Ernest married Julienne Cloutier and had two children, including Rita Marie (1930-92). Ernest’s date and place of death are unknown, however.
George Joseph married Bertha Regina Brown and had two children. He died in Manchester on March 20, 1997, age 85.
Alphonse Joseph served in the US army during World War II. He married Marion Etta Bose and died on Aug. 22, 1991 in New Hampshire, age 78.
Louise Anne married Martin Francis Kelly and had two children. She died in Bedford, New Hampshire on July 22, 2002, age 95. She was the last of the Hamel siblings. (I could not have imagined when I visited the Comaplix cemetery for the first and only time in 2005 that a sister to Lilly and Willy had been alive so recently, although of course, she was born after they died.)
It was a bit heartening to know that although the first three died tragically young, the next five all lived long lives. (There are likely some surviving grandchildren, but I don’t know their names.)
Did the Hamel children grow up hearing about their brother and sister buried at Comaplix or was it too painful to speak of? I don’t know.
The cemetery itself was not used after 1925 and was lost by the 1960s. It was rediscovered in 1973 by Milton and Len Parent, who found the Hamel children’s wooden headboards had survived the ravages of weather and time. By the mid-1980s, however, they were fallen over and decaying. Milton, by then president of the Arrow Lakes Historical Society, took them to Nakusp where the epitaphs were translated and retouched. They were returned to the cemetery in June 1994 and affixed to trees.
— With thanks to Nathan Wilkinson for translation corrections
Members of the Arrow Lakes Historical Society visit the
Comaplix cemetery in 2005.