When a loved one dies, many go to great lengths to ensure their memory and identity—what made them special—is preserved. It’s a profoundly personal period of our lives. Even if a loved one would prefer not to be remembered with a headstone or anything serving as permanence, it still matters. “Just think of me when the crocuses you planted bloom,” they may say.
One day, I was wandering around in Mount Carmel cemetery on Placentia beach, a part of the Town of Placentia. As with many other cemeteries around the world, it identifies with the heart and spirit of the community. Sitting nobly on Dixon’s Hill in a spot overlooking Placentia beach, it’s surrounded by hills as well as the waters of Placentia Bay. And it’s here where I discovered the coffin of Roger F. Sweetman.
Image of Mount Carmel (Source: Lee Everts).
Someone had covered his coffin entirely in silver paint. It was obviously a best intentioned effort to preserve it, albeit not the best approach. The only reason I knew it was his coffin was because I could just make out the date of death which I knew. Otherwise, no one would ever know. Still, it put me in mind of the efforts we take to enshrine the memories of our loved ones in a cemetery.
Image of Roger F. Sweetman’s coffin (Source: Lee Everts).
Roger F. Sweetman, R.I.P.
Roger F. Sweetman was a notable individual in these parts. He was born in Ireland to a prominent family who owned a transatlantic fishing business, shipping their wares across the globe. Operating in the 19th century, it was one of several prosperous fishing firms in Newfoundland, as this former country was known at the time.
The Sweetmans played a big role in Placentia. Roger F. Sweetman’s grandfather was Richard Welsh, also from Ireland, who began the fishing business in the 18th century. While the business may have started as a humble effort, in no time, it became wildly successful. Its presence was powerfully felt throughout the southwestern part of the Avalon peninsula of Newfoundland, as well as across the world. In the end, it would survive for four generations.
Image of Avalon Peninsula (Source: Wikipedia).
I learned about him through a bit of research. He was actually Harry Verran’s father-in-law. Ironically, Harry Verran was a another person I would’ve loved to have met. Roger F. Sweetman was clearly an astute businessman. But, for me, what stands out about him, was his willingness to lend a helping hand, to step up and serve his community.
Much of it is circumstantial, but I remember reading how Roger F. Sweetman was defined as a “kind-hearted man” (M.F. 1930, 105). He was regarded as both generous and giving. He left Newfoundland, returning to his homeland of Ireland, in the 1840s.
It seems he was in Ireland during the potato blight which resulted in a mismanaged debacle leading to an horrific famine. In 1845, Roger F. Sweetman also served as President of the Waterford Chamber of Commerce. While in Ireland, he also served as treasurer for the local relief committee.
When I discovered his coffin, I could just make out the date of his death, the 27th November, 1862, which I knew. Believing him to have been an upstanding citizen, kind-hearted to those around him, my first thoughts were that an injustice had been committed. It seemed wrong any proof of his presence amongst us decades ago had been so diminished on his coffin.
The Function of Burial Marker
Whether a headstone, tombstone, or coffin, each are used to mark someone’s grave. They are often embellished with symbols of meaning reflecting the nature of the person who is buried in that spot. At other times, a grave marker is just that, simply stating where someone is buried, their name being then humbly engraved on the stone.
Certainly, there are beliefs that what is buried with those who have passed away will assist them in their afterlife. Notable examples would be the Vikings or the Amesbury Archer in Britain who had one of the richest Bronze Age graves ever discovered thus far. Still, nowadays, most of us mark our passing with a headstone, embellishing it with various symbols that define our understanding of death.
Image of the Amesbury Archer, an early Bronze age figure found near Stonehenge during excavation for a housing development, now called Archer’s Gate. This image is of the display in the redeveloped Wiltshire Archaeology Gallery at Salisbury Museum (Source: Wikipedia).
Stone is customarily used nowadays, as it’s permanence and durability reflect how we choose to see our loved one—going on forever. And we’re right, who they are in our lives will go on. When headstone, coffin or other burial structures are made, our eyes are often firmly fixed on the future.
In the past, wood was the choice. After all, it was likely more ready at hand. Regardless, whether wood or stone, it is inscribed with the name of the deceased, a brief description of their lives, how they died, and perhaps a poignant quote or poem. The goal is for these expressions to ease our way through the loss of a family member or a friend.
What Really Matters
For Roger F. Sweetman, it was impossible to see whether anything had been written on his coffin. Most likely there had been something, given his place in the community. Not choosing wood, the hope was for it to last. Regardless, it failed against the rigours of time. Again, upon first encountering his coffin, it seemed wrong, nothing seemed to remain of him.
Still, in the end, I thought, does it matter? Whether or not his name emotes some feeling in the decades or centuries following his death, has little bearing on the kind of person he apparently was while alive. And that’s when it matters.
To him, what was of value were the decisions he made to help create a better place for people while he was alive. It’s at times like these when we’re reminded how all those burial markers and their myriad meaningful symbols, we leave are primarily for us, those who have been left behind. Without question, all these adornments are welcomed by family and friends who visit a grave.
Although, for people such as Roger F. Sweetman, perhaps we can be assured he’d already made a substantial difference in the lives of people around him. So, an unadorned coffin will have to do for the rest of eternity.
Cuff, Robert H. 2014 “19th century Newfoundland outport merchants” https://heritagenl.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/29-19th-Century-Outport-Merchants.pdf
Editorial Team 2022 “5 Reasons Why People Put Headstones On Graves” https://www.emuarticles.com/5-reasons-why-people-put-headstones-on-graves/
Huang, Eric 2024 “Graveyard symbols: architectural markers of life and death” https://www.europeana.eu/en/blog/graveyard-symbols-architectural-markers-of-life-and-death
Johnson, Daniel 2021 “The True Story of the Potato Famine” https://www.grunge.com/324540/the-true-story-of-the-potato-famine/
M.F. 1930 “Women’s Section – Christmas Hospitality in an Outport” The Veteran 9(2)
Mannion, J. 1986, “Irish Merchants Abroad: The Newfoundland Experience, 1750-1850”
Newfoundland Studies 2(2), 127−90
Memorials.com 2022 “Headstone Symbols and Meanings: A Guide to Cemetery Symbols”
Viking Style 2024 “Did Vikings Bury Their Dead?” https://viking.style/did-vikings-bury-their-dead/
Wikipedia 2024 “Headstone” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Headstone