The photo seen below, held by the Kootenay Lake Archives, is a rare shot of the Kaslo cemetery, taken in 1937. The description is even more interesting: “Maggie Bond, Canada’s only woman grave-digger.”
Kootenay Lake Historical Society 988.040.1119
Although the photo speaks for itself, Elizabeth Scarlett at the archives provided some additional context. In 2016, they received an email from a woman who met Maggie’s nephew. He told her: “She was the first female grave digger in Canada and was featured in Ripley’s Believe it or Not!”
(That’s two Ripley’s claims for Kaslo — the other is that the Mirror Lake post office, now parked next to the SS Moyie, was once feature as the world’s smallest. However, I haven’t been able to verify either one.)
The woman inquired if the archives had any pictures of Maggie. Indeed they had several, including the one seen here. Bond’s death registration, seen below, listed her occupation as “retired grave digger” with the handwritten notation “OK” afterward, as though the registrar was initially skeptical. The form indicated she held that occupation until 1951, when she was 75.
Despite her claim to fame, we don’t know how she got into that line of work, how often she was called upon to perform it, or who she did it for. The City of Kaslo? A fraternal organization? Her own family? Anyone who asked? It’s not clear.
Margaret Elizabeth Bond was born April 23, 1875 in Harrisville, Michigan to Thomas S. and Margaret Bond and moved to Sedgewick, Alta. before coming to Kaslo around 1906. Her parents joined her there six years later. She was widowed, although we don’t know anything about her first husband.
On June 11, 1913, she married John Yianelli, a widowed miner. Both were then 38. The marriage registration said the ceremony took place at the Anglican Church in Kaslo, but a newspaper notice said it happened at Maggie’s father’s home in the Springhill Addition (today just known as Zwicky Road). Both were then 38. The witnesses were William and Mary Bond, probably her brother and sister-in-law, though I’m not certain.
According to Paddy Flanagan, whose great great grandmother was Maggie’s mother, after Maggie and John were married, she discovered letters from Italy revealing he was already married. He disappeared soon after. Maggie took her maiden name back.
Flanagan says his mother remembered seeing a newsreel in the 1930s or ‘40s that showed Maggie digging a grave. If such footage still exists, I can find no sign of it.
Maggie died of a cerebral hemorrhage at Mount St. Mary Infirmary in Victoria on April 2, 1955, age 79. She had only left Kaslo two months prior, perhaps for medical care. She was buried in Kaslo, where, oddly, she is listed as “Margaret (Genelle) Bond.” Possibly that is a misspelling of her former married name of Yianelli. She was survived by two brothers, Clarence Bond of Kaslo and Ace Bond of Bluston, Alta. (a place I cannot find on the map; perhaps it should read Bluffton).
The home where Maggie’s parents once lived burned down long ago.
If you go to the Village of Kaslo’s cemetery web map, the first thing that pops up is the photo seen above.
Maggie may have been the first woman to dig graves in Canada, but she wasn’t the only one in her lifetime. Eyleen Smith of Bloomfield, Ont. and her husband started working in cemeteries around 1950 when local Quakers asked them to look after a plot. They then became caretakers for the village burial ground. When her husband died a couple of years later, leaving her a widow at 37, she started digging graves and found she “didn’t mind it at all.”
“I’ve dug for ‘rough boxes,’ cement and steel vaults, and I’ve moved a body from one graveyard to another,” she said in a story printed in the Montreal Gazette of May 14, 1956. “There was nothing left but bones so the job wasn’t too bad.”
When a grave needed to be dug, Smith would rise at 4 a.m. and spend anywhere from four to 10 hours shoveling sod, regardless of the weather. This she did usually did eight or nine times a year, on top of her many other chores, including cutting grass in the cemetery, milking cows, cleaning homes, and caring for children. She was a familiar figure around town on her bicycle, which carried everything she needed in plastic bags.
Smith was still at it as of 1971. Oddly, she told a reporter that as a child, she had a “mortal fear of cemeteries” after her teacher read her a poem about the burial of Moses.
— With thanks to Elizabeth Scarlett, Kootenay Lake Historical Society