A Cemetery Tour through the Toronto of the Dead

PEOPLE DIE ALL THE TIME IN TORONTO. For much of the city’s earliest history, cemeteries were the closest thing we had to public parks. Victoria Square, the city’s first cemetery, is still a public park, and most people walking their dogs along the paths there don’t know that the bodies are still under their feet. Graves still sit, unmarked and mostly forgotten, beneath playgrounds and parking lots all over the old city.

It’s probably why we have such a comfortable relationship with our cemeteries, nearly every one once built well outside city boundaries and now nestled in amongst commercial and residential neighbourhoods. They became a natural escape during the earliest months of lockdown here, and there was an outcry when their gates were briefly closed. Harder to get rid of than an old building, they’re our best examples of heritage districts, accidental repositories of city history and architecture.

St. James Cemetery, Toronto, Sept. 2020

The oldest graveyard still operating in Toronto is St. James Cemetery, just east of the downtown and opened by the Anglican Church in 1844. It’s adjacent to the Toronto Necropolis – established in 1850 and effectively the oldest non-denominational cemetery in the city, built to replace the Strangers’ Burying Ground or “Potter’s Field,” which was located a short walk away, by what would become Toronto’s municipal centre at Yonge and Bloor.

Toronto Necropolis, Sept. 2020

They both hug the sides of slopes where the Rosedale Ravine meets the Don Valley, and feature steep plots full of old graves, either tumbled over or overgrown with ivy and weeds. These patches of picturesque neglect are almost inevitable (and sought after) in old cemeteries; I’ve found them stretching for acres in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery, but they rarely reach the level of lush gothic decay you’ll find in London’s Highgate, or Philadelphia’s Mount Moriah.

Toronto Necropolis, Sept. 2020

These are the resting places of the city’s founders, and you’ll find tombs and monuments that bear names preserved elsewhere on city streets – Jarvis, Cawthra, Brock, Manning, Howland, Baldwin, Scarlett, Scadding and Jameson – or in the history of both the city and the country. There are the usual bankers and bishops, politicians, newspaper publishers, merchants, businessmen and architects, all pillars of the city’s protestant establishment. They share the cemetery with wildlife like the coyote that casually loped past me on the other side of a line of tombstones.

Gzowski mausoleum, St. James Cemetery, Toronto, Sept. 2020

My favorite monument is the Gzowski mausoleum in St. James, built for Sir Casimir Gzowski, one of those historical characters whose life seems far too improbable today. Born to Polish nobility in Russia, he was deported to the US after an uprising against Austria, became an engineer and ended up a railway magnate in Canada and a lieutenant-governor of Ontario. His tomb is an exotic and distinctive Egyptian Revival crypt cut into the side of one of the cemetery’s slopes – a fitting resting place for such a dynamic and unconventional man.

Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto, Sept. 2020

The next and most natural stop on any cemetery tour would be Mount Pleasant, opened in 1876 after it was plain that the Necropolis was reaching its capacity. This is the city’s toniest cemetery – the necropolitan equivalent of Park Avenue or Knightsbridge. Its plots contain the history of Toronto’s transformation from a somewhat rough backwater colonial capitol into a Commonwealth powerhouse, home to upright merchant princes, and they’re full of mayors, members of parliament, lieutenant-governors and even one prime minister.

Like any Victorian cemetery it has a collection of mausoleums, and some have become neglected with the passing of time and generations – like the Carty tomb, at the foot of one of the ravines around which Mount Pleasant is built. It sits in the shadow of trees, its entrance bricked up since 1933, when the last surviving daughter of Jeremiah Carty, a local businessman and politician, was interred there with the other five members of her family. A spring or drain has opened up beneath the tomb, issuing a slow but steady stream of water from the threshold – an interesting and unintended variation on an eternal flame.

Eaton mausoleum, Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto, Sept. 2020

The most desirable address is the so-called “millionaire’s mile” across a lawn from the grand crematorium chapel. It’s a street of mostly neo-classical tombs that ends with the bronze lions guarding the Eaton family crypt. It was built for Timothy Eaton, founder of a department store empire (Canada’s answer to Sears-Roebuck) and his descendents, who took the business from household name to bankruptcy in four generations.

Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto, Sept. 2020
Mount Hope Cemetery, Toronto, Oct. 2020

While it’s obvious that the long-term residents of these cemeteries are in its vaults and under its soil, the most visible figures above ground are the funerary monuments, adorned with sculptures of angels and cherubs, statuesque mourning women and solemn images of Jesus Christ. Mount Pleasant is still a very active cemetery, and the only one in the city still allowing the construction of massive new monuments and mausoleums. It’s also obviously willing to cater to the very modern eccentricities of clients, as with the baleful demon that adorns an unmarked (and apparently as-yet-untenanted) grave not far from the Yonge Street entrance.

The finest statuary – in my opinion at least – can be found in Mount Hope, the city’s second Catholic cemetery, opened in 1898 after St. Michael’s, north of Mount Pleasant Cemetery off Yonge Street, began filling up. The Irish and Italian answer to Mount Pleasant, in a town still very much ruled by the Orange Lodge, it has a flamboyance and operatic sense of drama that seems very un-Torontonian, especially at the time it was founded.

Puccini family monument, Mount Hope Cemetery, Toronto, Oct. 2020

This is exemplified best of all in the pair of mourning women on the top of the Puccini family monument, just near the entrance to the cemetery. Sculpted by the Florence atelier of Giulio Passaglia, it has a quality mostly missing from the more austere or conventional sculptures found in the city’s other cemeteries. The cemetery abounds in the work of skilled craftsmen, many of whom traveled or emigrated to Toronto to help build its office towers and churches.

Mount Hope Cemetery, Toronto, Oct. 2020
Breglia family monument, Mount Hope Cemetery, Toronto, Oct. 2020

It’s matched in quality and perhaps overdone in extravagance by another pair of figures on the tomb of Achille Breglia and his family – an angel and a voluptuously devout woman borne aloft with a crucifix in her hands. There are grand mausoleums in prime locations, masterfully carved family tombstones and plots of humble graves for the religious orders – priests and nuns like my great-aunt, a Loretto sister, laid to rest under rows of identical tombstones.

Mount Hope Cemetery, Toronto, Oct. 2020

The most heartbreaking sections – here and elsewhere in these cemeteries – are the ones devoted to the graves of infants and children. Even a century or more since they were laid to rest, it’s hard not to be touched by these humble little stones, especially when they’re adorned by the enameled photo of a child who would have been a great-grandparent by now. The most touching and pitiful one I found was barely visible – the possibly misspelled gravestone of Mable Flynn, hand-chiseled on a little square of marble and slowly sinking into the earth.

Prospect Cemetery on St. Clair West was opened in 1890 next to what would be a gritty working-class neighbourhood of wooden shacks and muddy streets. It’s a humbler cemetery than the older ones closer to Yonge Street, without the mausoleums and the grand monuments, or the dramatic, hilly landscaping of Mount Pleasant and Mount Hope.

Prospect Cemetery, Toronto, Oct. 2020

What it does have is the legacy of generations of arborists – a cemetery that’s also an arboretum, planted with huge old trees, many of them exotic species rarely seen in a city like Toronto. This becomes wildly visible on a foggy autumn morning, the first of the season, when the grounds are covered in a thick, cool mist that softens the fall colours and makes Prospect look like the cemetery we all have in our mind’s eye.

Prospect Cemetery, Toronto, Oct. 2020

Prospect was fully in operation in time for the First World War, when the adjacent neighbourhood, full of recent immigrants from Britain, had one of the highest enlistment rates in the city. It consequently became the home of a huge plot filled with the graves of veterans and soldiers who came home only to die of their wounds. Its centerpiece is a war memorial that hosts a Remembrance Day ceremony every year (except for this lockdown year, apparently.)

I’m fondest of Prospect most of all among the city’s cemeteries, not because my family is buried there (Mount Hope has that distinction, as well as Holy Cross far to the north in Thornhill) but because I can see it from the desk in my office, over the wall behind my house. When my window is open in the summer I can hear bagpipes playing while some soul with Scottish roots is being laid to rest. It’s a sad but stirring sound, and just one of the reasons I think that a cemetery is the best neighbour you can hope to have.

Photos and story © 2020 Rick McGinnis All Rights Reserved