By: Brianna Davies
Last fall, I moved to a new neighbourhood in Toronto.
I was in quite the love affair with my previous place, knew the side streets and the history and acted as a self-important tour guide whenever my family would come visit me, taking them to the park around the corner to show them the old linseed factory that would soon become a community center. But my new neighbourhood and me, we were strangers sitting across from each other on an awkward first date. I needed to get to know her, and the best place to find out the history of the place is of course to head to the closest museum. The Museum of Davisville has yet to become a thing, so I went to Mount Pleasant Cemetery instead.
Mount Pleasant Cemetery Angel, 2021. Source.
Cemeteries are museums. Anything you want to know about a place, you can find out by going to the nearest burying place, looking at some tombstones and giving a cursory glance at the cemetery’s Wikipedia page. A trip to Mount Pleasant taught me that the cemetery had come before my new community, built in 1876 to accommodate the bodies that had been removed from the closed Stranger’s Burying Grounds in what is now Yorkville (there are likely still remains under the macaron shops and perfumeries, but that’s a different history). Many had already been moved to the Necropolis, and the remainders were sent north to the new Mount Pleasant Cemetery, which was conceived as a non-denominational burying ground modelled after the garden cemeteries popular in Europe and the United States. This explained the lack of Victorian houses that still dominate the Annex and Parkdale, as the city wouldn’t swallow up this area until the turn of the 20th century.
I knew then any graves older than 1876 meant they had been moved here, which sent me on a sort of scavenger hunt to try to find them. I read their names, and thought what it must have meant for the families who had to have relatives moved after their death. And for those who had no relatives left to visit them here, as was the case for many people who had been buried in the Stranger's Burying Grounds. Early Toronto only had burying grounds for Anglicans and Catholics until the creation of Stranger's Burying Grounds in 1826. While the cemetery had a reputation as the final home for criminals who had no one to pay for a proper burial, it also was the resting place for many non-Christian immigrants. The first Jewish cemetery, Holy Blossom Cemetery, wasn't opened until 1849. We aren't all equal in death, at least not in early Toronto. These histories are embedded in our cemeteries and are there for us to learn about, if we visit and read on.
The cemetery also features several memorials. By reading the stones, I learned about the SS Noronic Disaster, the sinking of the Empress of Ireland, and the crash of Air Canada Flight 621. I was moved by people I had never heard about before I went to Mount Pleasant Cemetery. I had wanted to learn more about the Davisville area, and had come away instead with a deeper understanding of Toronto history.
Cemeteries are a lot like historic house museums, which teach about a particular history while also physically being historic sites. There is so much to learn from them, whether you’re new to a place or seeking a deeper understanding of your long-time neighbourhood. The dead don’t talk, but their stories do. Cemeteries can teach us about the growth of our cities, about which communities got buried where and who advocated for that, it can tell us about what we value in life and what we value in death. There are lessons in grave sigils and in pausing to calculate how long someone lived for.
Of course, I’m not suggesting you go ooohing and aaahing loudly whilst sidestepping a hearse- cemeteries still require you to read quietly and respectfully, though I expect anyone who has spent time in silent and stuffy art galleries or museums will already have the composure a cemetery requires of you.
Toronto Cemetery Tours is a fantastic way for the curious amateur cemetery goer who is interested in learning more about the kinds of histories buried in our city. There are also tons of walking guides that feature cemeteries and their stories and most cemeteries encourage walkers to come visit, especially Mount Pleasant. The Toronto Book of the Dead by local historian Adam Bunch also provides an accessible starting point for anyone interested in death history. But the simplest way is to set off to your closest cemetery, keep Google close by, and see what jumps out at you (not literally, I hope).
Bradburn, Jamie. “Historicist: In Potter's Field.” Torontoist, October 31, 2011. https://torontoist.com/2011/10/historicist-in-potters-field/.
Laidlaw, Stuart. “Jewish History in Stone.” thestar.com. Toronto Star, April 19, 2008. https://www.thestar.com/life/2008/04/19/jewish_history_in_stone.html
“Mount Pleasant Cemetery.” Mount Pleasant Group. Accessed October 30, 2022. https://www.mountpleasantgroup.com/en-CA/Locations/Cemeteries/Mount-Pleasant.aspx
“Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, October 16, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Pleasant_Cemetery,_Toronto