Glenn Smith has spent a lot of time in cemeteries recently, which has helped him pick up a very unique skill.
Walking among the headstones and grave markers, Smith has developed an uncanny ability to spot unmarked graves, places where bodies rest without any official marking above. When most people think of unmarked graves, they may envision some hasty monument associated with a sudden death in a crisis situation – a staple of war movies or old westerns – or perhaps a quiet pasture where a family buried the ashes of a loved one under an old oak tree. But unmarked graves are actually not all that uncommon in official cemeteries, says Smith, an Abbotsford resident. You just have to know what to look for.
His line of work with Canada’s Last Post Fund often has him visiting the veterans sections of cemeteries around the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley – nearly every cemetery has a section like that, he says – and it’s there where his skill kicks in.
“If you go into these veterans sections, you can be walking along a row of graves that have markers, and then all of a sudden there might be a spot where there isn’t a grave marker. A void space,” he says. “That gives me a bit of a red flag, and I’ll go and talk to the cemetery operator and say, ‘There’s a void space there, can you tell me if there is an individual resting there?’ They can look at their records and say, ‘You know what, there is. And this is the person’s name.’”
The name is the key to Smith’s work as the B.C. co-ordinator of the Last Post Fund’s Unmarked Grave Program. The goal of the program is to identify veterans who are buried in unmarked graves and to provide headstones for them free of charge. Once Smith has a name, he’ll get to work.
“I’ll take that name home and do my research,” he said. He’ll search through various sources, such as military records stored by the Library and Archives of Canada, to see if the person is indeed a veteran. “If there is a veteran in that void space, I can apply and get a headstone. And if their family is still around, I can contact them to see if they would like to pursue getting a headstone.”
Those are the basics of Smith’s role with the Last Post Fund, a non-profit organization founded in 1909. The group’s origin story is a powerful one from 1908, when an unconscious man was found on a Montreal street and taken to hospital where he was labelled a homeless drunk. But the hospital’s head orderly, a man named Arthur Hair, noted the man was carrying a distinct blue envelope, which Hair identified as the man’s honourable discharge from Britain’s war office. Trooper James Daly was suffering from hypothermia and malnutrition, not drunkenness, and died two days later. The blue envelope was his sole possession.
Daly’s body was unclaimed and his remains were to be turned over to science, but Hair, stunned by the indifference shown to a 20-year veteran who had served in South Africa, raised enough money from friends and colleagues to give Daly a dignified funeral and burial. From that beginning came the Last Post Fund, which has helped provide financial assistance for nearly 150,000 servicemen and women since then.
Smith volunteered with the Last Post Fund earlier this year and quickly jumped into his role with the Unmarked Grave Program, which was added to the Last Post Fund’s list of services in 1996. He’s a veteran himself, having served as a military policeman for three years in the mid-1980s. While some may think that looking for unmarked graves is a macabre job, Smith says it is important work that is rewarding for him.
“It’s a great volunteer role to be doing in my retirement time,” he says. And there’s much more to it than poking around cemeteries. Many cases come from family members contacting the Unmarked Grave Program to inquire about getting a military grave marker for a deceased relative. A number of veterans died decades ago, or even more than a century ago. There are many ways in which someone can end up in an unmarked grave, says Smith.
“There could be any number of situations where that individual died alone … and they were just put in the ground in an unmarked grave,” he says. “It’s kind of a cold reality, but sometimes that’s how it happens. Or there's times where family members just didn't have the financial means to give that person a proper burial – at a funeral home or have a headstone made for them – and they just have them resting in an unmarked grave.”
Smith was giving a presentation at a Royal Canadian Legion branch in Nanaimo earlier this year and was approached by a man after he finished speaking. The man said his grandfather died in 1938, was a First World War veteran, and was in an unmarked grave in Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery.
“Is there anything you can do?” the man asked.
Smith took down all the information, and “within a week I’d made an application to our Montreal office to have a headstone placed on this gentleman’s unmarked grave.” That headstone also included information on the veteran’s wife, as she was buried beside him in another unmarked grave.
The headstones provided by the Last Post Fund can come in different styles, but the most common is a standard three-foot-high granite military headstone marked with the veteran’s name, regiment crest, where they served and date of death. Typically, the words “lest we forget” are inscribed on the bottom of the gravestone.
The Unmarked Grave Program is on target to place more than 1,000 headstones across Canada this year. Anyone who knows of a deceased veteran who may qualify for the program, is encouraged to go to the program's website for more information or contact Smith directly by email. There is also an Indigenous Veterans Initiative, introduced in 2019, that provides grave markers for deceased Indigenous veterans in unmarked graves and also adds traditional Indigenous names to existing military grave markers.
It’s all meaningful work, says Smith.
“Being a past military member myself many years ago, it’s important to recognize the contributions that these veterans provided for those of us in the rest of society that perhaps weren’t military people,” he says. “The veterans, they sacrificed an awful lot, as we all know, and I would just like to do what I can to recognize and pay tribute to those veterans who made my life a little bit better than it could have turned out to be.”