Commentary – Dignity in death

Chris Clegg

In this week’s High Prairie South Peace News, and next week’s Slave Lake Lakeside Leader, we present a two-part series on the 1904 Charles King murder story.

The murder of Edward Hayward has a significant place in Alberta’s history because the conviction resulted in the first hanging in the new province of Alberta on Sept. 30, 1905. Alberta became a province on Sept. 1, 1905.

It was also a case where the RCMP wanted to prove to the Indians [now called First Nations] that they would prosecute the white man as vigorously as the Indians. Thanks to the hard work of Sgt. “Andy” Anderson, a conviction resulted.

King’s end is tragic as he dangled from the end of a noose, his neck broken. Death was immediate.

But his burial was worse.

From the Edmonton Bulletin, Sept. 30, 1905: “The body was placed in a rough coffin, face downward, hands behind, underneath them was the death warrant was placed. Then three prisoners bore the remains to the southwest corner of the Fort enclosure, where it lies beside the remains of Bullock, who was hanged in 1902. The earth was levelled and not even a mound remains to mark the spot.”

This is as inhumane as it gets.

The part that bothers me most is King was laid face down.

Apparently in those days, it was common to treat a criminal that way.

I mean, face down! Not even allowed to be face up, resting peacefully.

No matter what the crime, no one deserves to be buried in such a manner. As a civilized society, it bothers me that we treated people this way.

No matter what King did, at one time he was somebody’s lovable child. Someone loved and cared for him as a child. He laughed, he played, he brought some joy to his family.

Surely we can do better than that!

Well, in a weird twist of history, it turns out we can.

In 1957, the original Gaol Cemetery [prison cemetery] in Fort Saskatchewan was moved. The original cemetery was built south of the bridge crossing the North Saskatchewan River on Highway 15. It was moved to its present location just before the bridge was built in 1957.

Today, the cemetery is enclosed with a beautiful white picket fence. There are white crosses inside the fence. Even today, however, no one knows all the names of the people buried at the site because it was not recorded. We do know, of course, that Bullock and King are two of the men laid to rest there.

Apparently, the cemetery is hot little tourist attraction at the Fort.

Today, I have no idea what authorities do with the bodies of convicted people sentenced to die if the family does not claim them. What can perhaps be done is instead of a humiliating burial, cremation, then bury the ashes.

I can’t imagine a worse humiliation than to be buried face down.

So, why face down? It is said when people are buried face down it is a punishment intended to humiliate the deceased and stop them from rising from the grave.

Or, to point them in the direction of ensuring they go to hell.

It is perhaps ironic that in his last hours King received no further religious discussion and he did not accept the faith. To that end, the hardliners will suggest King really was pointed in the direction he deserved to go.

But face down!

C’mon. Surely, we can do better than that!

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