Looking Back: Woodlands Memorial in New Westminster, B.C.

Last summer, LEES+Associates celebrated 25 years of serving the people, parks, memorials, and cemeteries of Canada. We’re so proud of the work that we’ve done over the past quarter century that we’d like to spend some time showcasing some of our early, award-winning work. 

One of LEES+Associates’ early projects was the Woodlands Memorial in New Westminster, BC, which memorialized Canadians with developmental disabilities who died while hospitalized in the Woodlands School.

Woodlands Memorial

The institution known as the Woodlands School was founded in 1878 as the B.C. “Provincial Lunatic Asylum.” While it closed in 1996 after long-standing allegations of abuse, the institution had an attached cemetery that held the remains of three thousand and thirty-seven people who died while living there. The cemetery had been closed to new burials in 1958 and, in 1977, the cemetery’s over 3000 grave markers were removed. Over time, the site was turned into a dumpsite and many of the gravestones were misplaced or misused. Some were used as patio stones. Only nine markers had been left in their original locations.

In 1999, the BC Self Advocacy Foundation and the B.C. Association for Community Living (BCACL) began work on planning a memorial to commemorate the patients who had died there. LEES+Associates helped guide the concept design process that took place over several years. Working with BCACL, our goal was to create a space where people could remember and celebrate the lives of the people with mental illness and developmental disabilities who lived and died in these institutions. More than 500 of the original grave markers were recovered and restored, although we still receive calls when additional grave markers are discovered.

In 2005, the BCACL recognized LEES+Associates with a Partnership Award for the firm’s dedicated and creative work on the garden. The garden design had three key elements: a structure called the “Window Too High” that reflects the experience of institution residents who could not see out of the high barred windows of the hospital; a pond that mirrors the pattern of burials at the cemetery; and memorial walls with the names of all those buried in the cemetery. Each memorial wall has one of the original grave markers from the site inset in its walls.

The Woodlands Memorial Garden reopened in 2007 at a ceremony hosted by the BC Ministry of Labour and Senior Citizens.

 The site has continued to change as the area around it grows. When the memorial garden was built, there was nothing nearby except the Queen’s Park Care Centre next door. Now, the garden is completely closed in by new residential towers in New Westminster. In addition to being a space to commemorate the lives of the people who died at Woodlands, it’s now an important green space for this community. It acts as a quiet space for residents and care centre employees to enjoy a moment of contemplation.

While smaller collections of headstones had been found in the past, in 2022, over 100 more headstones were found in Langley. Working with archaeologists from Golder Associates’ Heritage Group, the headstones were catalogued and carefully moved. Many of the stones were broken and a significant amount of work needed to be done to put together names and reassemble broken grave markers. LEES then added a curved wall encompassing the path of the site to accommodate these new stones.

According to Leila Zeppelin, one of LEES’ senior landscape designers who has worked on the site, adding these new locations to the original memorial is itself an important part of the story of the Woodlands Memorial. The new discoveries of gravestones remind us that these things were lost. The beauty and the challenge of memorializing a site like Woodlands is that its story is not a clean line. It has a troubled history; the site represents that trauma, in addition to the people who are buried there.

Woodlands: The Burden of Gravity

The Burden of Gravity, an anthology of poems by Shannon McConnell “challenges readers to consider how we, in the aftermath of de-institutionalization, choose to remember institutions like Woodlands School”.

The Burden of Gravity

LEES+Associates in collaboration with many individuals who gave generously of their time and ideas, designed a memorial garden to serve as a beautiful gathering place honouring former Woodlands residents.

The Woodlands Memorial Garden project involved the recovery of some 3,000 previously removed headstones marking the graves of former residents of the Woodlands School. This work has extended over several years from guiding the concept development process, design development to construction of the Woodlands Memorial Gardens.

Work on this project remains ongoing as more headstones are discovered offsite.


The Burden of Gravity – Shannon McConnell

Review: Shannon McConnell challenges her readers to witness the burdens of memory, abuse and erasure – from the Vancouver Sun

Woodlands Memorial Garden – Project Page


Woodlands memorial garden
Woodlands Memorial Garden, New Westminster, BC


May 5 Tulips

May 5 Tulips

May 5th 2020 marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands from Nazi occupation. This victory was won largely through the sacrifice of Canadian soldiers, and over than 7,600 Canadian soldiers died in the effort. Every year since 1946, the Dutch government has sent thousands of tulips in thanks to Canada.

This year was to have been special, 110,000 red tulips (Canadian Liberator and Strong Love) were planted last fall in the City of Vancouver alone. Over 30,000 of these bulbs were planted by the staff at Mountain View Cemetery.

Although COVID-19 forced the cancellation of events, this week saw the peak of an astonishing display, as thousands of tulips bloomed along the maple allée that runs through three of the cemetery’s military sections.
LEES+Associates is proud of our small part in helping to celebrate this remarkable anniversary.

May 5 Tulips

May 5 Tulips

May 5 Tulips

A Night for all Souls

Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery held its 13th annual Night for All Souls last Saturday, October 28th 2017.
The highlight in a week of events honouring the dead, this year’s “Night” was blessed with wonderful weather. Hundreds of visitors—families, neighbours and friends of the cemetery—turned out for an evening of music and song, candle-lit shrines, personal tributes, and tea and flowers in the Celebration Hall.

In recognition of this wonderful tradition, we have posted a video from 2005 that tells the story of how it all began. Enjoy!