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Coastal erosion is unearthing ancestral bones on this B.C. Gulf Island

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A walk past a cemetery can conjure many emotions – sadness, fear and finality. But rarely does it conjure the idea of actually seeing a deceased loved one again.

On British Columbia's Gabriola Island, however, coastal erosion is unearthing more than just memories.

"I come here and I go, 'What am I going to do about this?' says Jared Hooper, chair of the Gabriola Cemetery Commission.

The cemetery sits atop of a 10-metre cliff on South Road and faces Mudge Island to the west. The land was donated in 1882 by Magnus Edgar, an early settler who is also buried there along with his family. 

"It’s a lovely peaceful cemetery,” he says. "Except for the problems we are having with bank slipping away."

Hooper's job is to watch over the island's only cemetery – a cemetery that's slowly sliding off a cliff and into the ocean.

"You can't stop it," he says. "You might as well let nature take its course."

Some of the island's earliest pioneers are buried on the bluff, with graves dating back to 1882.

Approximately 15 of those settlers are buried on what's called a midden, a refuse dump for domestic waste that was used by Snuneymuxw inhabitants centuries ago.

“That midden is full of broken clam shells and artifacts,” Hooper adds.

Geologists have told the cemetery that the lower area of the cemetery near the water is much softer because of the midden.

"It’s sliding seaward over harder layers lower down that go right down to the beach," says Hooper.

With the bank eroding by about 20 to 25 centimetres per year, and the caskets long since decomposed, the problem calls for some out-of-the-box thinking.

"I've got that wire basket hanging over the edge so they don't just fall down to the beach," Hooper says. "You can throw a million dollars at it and it’ll fall down in a number of years."

Leg bones exposed on a bluff on Gabriola Island, B.C. (CTV News)

He's slowly collecting the bones until full skeletons can be relocated up the hill and these unsettled settlers can settle once again.

"These bones, they are going to be coming out of the bank for who knows, 20, 30, 40 more years?"

Hooper has connected with some of the living relatives of the settlers buried on the island and they are OK with relocating the remains once the time comes, he says.

For those plotting their own burials on the island, there's still plenty of room in the back, Hooper says.

"We've got lots of room left for cremations – maybe 100 spots or more."

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