They’re strewn over the side of a steep bluff at city-owned Woodland Cemetery, some just fragments of tombstones bearing a first name and partial description of a dead soldier’s service.
But others, like the grave marker for John Winfield, are more revealing, showing he served with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and died on Jan. 22, 1987 at age 58.
Another stone identifies Michael Klecman as having served with the Merchant Navy, but is broken in half, so only the top of the dates of his birth and death are legible.
It’s an unexpected find during a reporter’s Saturday afternoon stroll with Hamilton Beach activist Jim Howlett to check out his concern the city may be illegally dumping gravesite wastes and other debris over the bluff, which overlooks Hamilton Harbour.
“I certainly am disturbed to see tombstones of veterans broken and thrown over a cliff with a pile of other garbage,” Howlett said. “Cemeteries play a role in safeguarding dignity and respect,” he said.
“It’s going to be very troubling, I think, for a couple people to find their family’s tombstones on a cliff, sort of disregarded as being of any importance. There’s big history there.”
Murray Brown, president of Royal Canadian Legion Branch 163 on Hamilton Mountain, said he found it hard to believe the city would be so cavalier with the tombstones.
He said he wanted to investigate the matter further, but expects the city to let the Legion or a veteran’s family know if a tombstone has to be replaced for some reason.
“I think it’s disgraceful if they did do that,” Brown said. “I’ve never ever heard of that (happening).”
A day after being contacted for comment, Veterans Affairs Canada said it had determined the tombstones were the remains of ones replaced in the late 1980s.
“Minister (Julian) Fantino takes the responsibility of damaged veterans' graves very seriously, which is why departmental officials have already been in contact with the cemetery,” wrote spokesperson Janice Summerby.
“The broken pieces recently discovered will be removed and disposed of appropriately.”
Tennessee Propedo, the city’s manager of cemeteries, said he was unaware of the tombstones and discarding them with visible markings goes against “responsibility and accountability and just respect for these people.”
“Our protocol with Veterans Affairs is that if we replace any of the markers, they’re to be crushed, so that way there’s no identifiable features on them,” he said. “The last thing we want is one of these stones to end up in somebody’s house or wherever. It’s inappropriate.”
Howlett raised the issue of dumping at Woodland and other properties along the north shore of the harbour at last week’s Hamilton Conservation Authority directors’ meeting.
At the time, his chief concern was that grass clippings and other organic material were finding their way into Lake Ontario via the bay and eventually being washed up in a rotten, smelly mess along the beach strip.
There seems to be ample evidence — the top of the bluff looks recently bulldozed and the down slope has mounds of leaves, dirt and sod, concrete slabs, dried wet concrete, chainsaw trimmings and the broken off tops of nearby trees evidently damaged in December’s ice storm.
That’s apart from a slew of garden baskets and plastic flowers that may have been tossed over the side by visitors or carried there by the wind.
Howlett, who is also the authority's vice-chair, said he saw a front-end loader “shoving stuff over the cliff” last summer and previously noticed the broken gravestones, but had no inkling several belonged to veterans.
Propedo said his staff is adamant that it hasn’t been dumping over the cliff.
“If there is something going on that I’m not aware of, we will correct it,” he said.
Scott Peck, the HCA’s director of watershed planning and engineering, said it’s illegal to place “fill material” in a regulated area without a permit.
“We wouldn’t allow that,” he said of the dumping at Woodland cemetery, which Howlett has documented with pictures of his own.
Peck said the Hamilton and Halton conservation authorities share jurisdiction over the north shore and plans are afoot to educate landowners on why they shouldn’t dump organic waste.
“You get further with honey than you do with a stick,” Peck said. “If there were continuous issues, then certainly from our perspective we’d have to proceed from a regulatory approach.”