MacLaren Cemetery lies adjacent to the old Wakefield Mill, at the top of the aptly named Mill Road. The Cemetery takes its name from the MacLaren Family, who purchased the mill property from William Fairbairn in 1844 and owned it until 1943. The MacLarens, natives of Perthshire, Scotland, moved to Canada in 1824 and to Wakefield, Quebec twenty years later. Wealthy and entrepreneurial, the MacLaren Family can be credited for much of Wakefield’s early economic development. The Family operated a general store that housed the post office between 1848 and 1912, making it the centre of village activity through the 1800s. Also, their extensive development of the original mill included the addition of both a woolen mill and a saw mill to the complex. In 1860, James MacLaren was elected mayor.
The specific date that the MacLarens obtained the cemetery land is unclear. It may have been a part of the family’s original land purchase of 1700 acres or the Family may have come into possession of this parcel of land as part of the grounds belonging to Fairbairn’s Mill. Presumably, the site was originally intended to be used only by the Family, especially considering its proximity to Hall Cemetery. However, the graveyard was eventually opened up to the entire community. In fact, an 1874 inventory of John MacLaren’s estate shows that the land had already transferred ownership to the Presbyterian Church, of which the MacLaren’s were prominent members. The transfer of ownership may have taken place as early as 1859. Unfortunately, the land registries and deeds were destroyed in a fire in 1900 making a precise dating very difficult.
The first burials at the site are also difficult to date. Although the earliest grave still visible is dated to 1864, there is some question as to whether this individual is actually buried at MacLaren Cemetery or if the stone is a monument. Certainly, the MacLaren site was well in use by the 1870s, through the 1880s.
The historic organization of MacLaren Cemetery is interesting and worthy of note. The National Capital Commission completed a detailed report on the physical history of MacLaren Cemetery which suggested that the chosen location for MacLaren’s position on top of a hill could have been influenced by typical Victorian health concerns. Growing anxiety for public hygiene meant that across the Western world, cemeteries were increasingly moved out of village centres to more isolated areas. This seems to apply to MacLaren, although its positioning could have been chosen purely out of practicality.
The location of MacLaren Cemetery is also scenic, another typical trait of cemeteries founded during the early 1800s. In this time period when MacLaren Cemetery was established, while gravesites had previously been seen as practical locations to bury the dead, now there was a shift to view gravesites as sentimental places for the contemplation of the natural world and religion. The spaces themselves became more like parks with neatly arranged graves. Along with this view, came the growing popularity of the family plot which can be seen throughout MacLaren Cemetery.
The exact size and organization of MacLaren Cemetery has, of course, changed since its initial foundation in the 1800s. In 1961, the Board took control over the management of the cemetery. The deed for the property was already in the possession of the United Church, but the Board readily foresaw the need to expand graveyard and quickly purchased more land adjacent to the site.
Since this time, the Board has taken care of any needed maintenance on site. For more information on the Board’s activities view the history of Hall Cemetery.
MacLaren Cemetery is perhaps best known as the final resting place of former Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. Pearson served as Prime Minister between 1963 and 1968, during which time his government introduced universal health care, student loans and the Canadian Pension plan. Pearson is also well known for instituting our current Canadian Flag, which now flies at MacLaren Cemetery in recognition of his contribution to the nation and MacLaren Cemetery’s status as the burial place of one of Canada’s Prime Ministers. Along with his work domestically, Pearson has also been recognized on the global scale for his work with the United Nations. In 1957, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his involvement in the resolution of the Suez Canal Crisis.
Although he was born in Newtonbrook, Ontario, Pearson chose Wakefield as his place of burial. Pearson loved the Gatineau Hills and he and his family owned a cottage nearby in Burnett, Chelsea. Thirty years before his death, Pearson selected his place at MacLaren Cemetery because of its beauty.
The simple plot only cost Pearson ten dollars at the time of purchase of which was written “echoed his feeling for the common man.” It is true that Pearson’s grave is not very large and does blend in with the rest of the plots at MacLaren. So much so in fact that visitors often have a difficult time locating the grave even though proper way markers have been installed.
When Pearson died in 1971, a private burial ceremony was held at MacLaren Cemetery which was followed by a state funeral in Ottawa held during freezing rain. His coffin was covered in the Maple Leaf Flag and eight RCMP officers acted as his pall bearers.
In 2001, Parks Canada held a memorial service for Pearson by at MacLaren Cemetery. New information panels were installed on site recognizing the presence of his grave. The event was attended by then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, Sheila Copps, Minister of Canadian Heritage, members of Pearson’s family and approximately 200 members of the general public .
Along with the available information on Pearson, other panels can also be viewed at MacLaren Cemetery. In 1997, a plaque was installed on site recognizing the pioneer families interred at MacLaren. A similar one was also installed at Hall Cemetery .
In 1999, MacLaren Cemetery was integrated into the Wakefield Trail System. An information panel was installed just outside of the cemetery giving visitors an opportunity to learn more about the history of the nearby mill and the MacLaren Family.