Vandalism in Cemeteries

Vandalism has been a problem in Ross Bay Cemetery throughout its existence. The result of a night’s vandalism in Ross Bay Cemetery is costly because, in most cases, the damaged objects can never be restored to their former state. Many head stones are over one hundred years old. Many of the families no longer live in the area, so there is no one to pay for complete repairs. Most of the time, the repairs, if done, are done by volunteers who can only put the tombstone back upright and mortar the broken pieces back together. The success of a repair depends on the skill of the person doing it and on the amount of damage.


We know something about a typical cemetery vandal from people who have been caught at Ross Bay Cemetery and from information collected on vandals at other cemeteries. But knowing who vandals are doesn’t help us explain their actions.

The typical vandal is a 14 to 19 year old male who has been drinking alcohol, and is with two or more people like him. What usually happens is that a few drunk young men sneak into the cemetery and wander around. If they are not caught, they vent their energy, morbid curiosity or emotional problems by pushing over the silent markers of the dead. Some leave after they push over one or two, others knock over row after row, sometimes as many as 50 or more, until they are caught or realize they have been discovered. The results are left to the parks department of Victoria and to the Old Cemeteries Society. Volunteers and maintenance personnel assess the damage, inform the relatives, if any, of the person whose marker was damaged, and clean up.

Here is a five-year sample of vandalism in Ross Bay Cemetery:

Date of VandalismNo. of Tombstones DamagedCost EstimateNo of Vandals Charged
Mar/Apr 198824$25,0001(age 19)
Feb 198950$50,0003(age 18, 18, 16)
Aug 1989  5$  5,0000
Feb 1992  9$50,0000

There are many reasons for Ross Bay being the target of so many vandals. Its large area is hard to police effectively, even though it has a security guard at night. It is easily accessible from Dallas Road along the water, and at entrances along Fairfield Road. It is also close to the downtown core of Victoria and a shopping plaza.

VANDALISM OF CEMETERIES: A Problem That Has Been Around For A Long Time

When we hear of vandalism in cemeteries these days, many people are horrified. They assume that today’s young people have lost all respect for our cultural and religious traditions. However, vandalism of all sorts, and of cemeteries and burial sites in particular, has been around for thousands of years. After all, why did the pharaohs of ancient Egypt have to take so many precautions to prevent people from breaking into their pyramids? And even with those efforts, they still could not stop tomb robbers from taking almost everything. But not all vandalism is done in malice. Burial sites are destroyed or defaced for other reasons, some quite acceptable within certain societies. Following are the main categories of vandalism and other damage to cemeteries, which have been recorded through history:

Deliberate, Malicious Damage

  1. Personal Spite. It is believed that personal grudges against some of the pharaohs may have been a motive for defacing some pyramids. Rulers who came after sometimes erased all references to the former ruler.
  2. Racial Hatred. This certainly was the motive for the destruction of the tombstones of many Japanese Canadians on Canada’s West Coast during World War II.
  3. Morbid Curiosity. Some people break into tombs just to see what’s there or for the thrill of it.
  4. Ritual Desecration. Cemeteries generally (and some tombstones in particular) can be subjects of desecration during satanic or other cult practices. This could include breaking crosses and painting cult symbols on monuments.
  5. Death Denial. Some psychologists think that teenagers deface tombstones because they don’t want to believe that they will die some day.
  6. Bodysnatching. Bodysnatchers were people who would break into tombs, steal the bodies and sell them to anatomy students and medical colleges. They did this in Britain until 1832 when the law changed so it was no longer illegal to obtain bodies for medical studies.
  7. Plunder of Riches. Due to the ages-old practice of placing precious objects with the dead, theft of grave goods has been a problem for a long time. Grave robbers usually caused damage when they entered the tombs.
  8. Utilitarian Purposes. A large trade in bones and mummies for medicines and ingredients in artists’ pigments caused many tombs to be broken open in the past. Over the years, many tombs have been dismantled for their building materials.
  9. Veneration. Relics of saints or famous people have long been in demand. They have often been obtained either by theft or by deliberate destruction of burial sites.
  10. Scientific Investigation. Archaeologists frequently disturb burial sites to obtain scientific data from them.
  11. Need for Space. In some cultures (e.g., in parts of Europe), bones are routinely removed from graves and put into ossuaries. An ossuary is a place to store bones. It may be part of a church, a separate building or a catacomb. This is usually done in areas where a cemetery is full, and there is no land for a new cemetery. This way, the same graves can be re-used.
  12. Superstition. In some cultures, tombs are entered to stop hauntings. The head is severed from the body of the person believed to be doing the haunting. If a person is believed to be a vampire, a stake is driven through the heart.
  13. Cultural Duty. Many Chinese believe strongly in being buried with their ancestors. Chinese who came to Canada and died here would be buried for seven years. Their bones would then be dug up and shipped back to their home village in China for final burial. This practice stopped in the 1930s with the conflicts in China. Some cemeteries from which these bodies were removed still have depressions where the coffins had been buried.
  14. Safety. When monuments become unsafe, cemetery authorities may remove and even throw away dangerous pieces.
  15. Ease of Maintenance. To make maintaining cemeteries easier for the grounds crews, some cemetery authorities have removed grave fences, railings, monuments and curbings. 
  16. Glorification. Dismantling and rebuilding a person’s grave to provide more recognition have destroyed some tombs. One example is the grave of Karl Marx whose original burial place at Highgate Cemetery was removed and his remains reinterred under a new, larger tombstone.
  17. Improper Conservation. Harsh chemicals, cleaning methods such as scrubbing with wire brushes, and poor repair work can create lasting damage and unsightly marks on monuments.
  18. Gravestone Rubbings. When done incorrectly, rubbing techniques may leave ink or crayon on monuments. In some cases, the pressure of pushing against a stone can cause problems.
  19. Laying Monuments in the Ground. This is done to reduce the risks of vandalism, or make maintenance easier. However, it can lead to increased wear on the stone surface, increased moisture rising through the stone, and problems from poor drainage, especially in freezing conditions.
  20. Embedding Monuments in Walls. This is done to reduce the risk of vandalism or make maintenance easier. It prevents people from viewing all sides of a monument and can lead to other conservation problems.
  21. Partying. Because of their remote and dark locations, some cemeteries attract drinking or drug parties that may result in damage to tombstones.
  22. Neglect. Tall grass, falling tree limbs or heaving roots can damage tombs.
  23. Poor Quality Materials. Some monuments simply disintegrate on their own because they are made of soft materials such as sandstone. While not exactly a type of vandalism, poor quality materials are often linked to vandalism.
  24. Accident. Not all damage in cemeteries is caused on purpose by people. Animals, hail and wind storms, freezing temperatures all cause damage.
  25. Improper Maintenance. Monuments can be damaged by being run into by power lawn mowers and sometimes by powerful weed trimmers.