As Halloween approaches, we are surrounded by images of death. Most focus on the ghoulish aspects, from bony skeletons to creepy tombstones with punny names for the deceased. But the mock graveyards decorating residential lawns bear little resemblance to Toronto’s real cemeteries. Instead of depressing, scary final resting places, these spaces are full of life. There are tantalizing hints amid tombstone epitaphs of our forebears’ fascinating stories. Informational plaques and thoughtfully designed monuments attest to the importance of historical figures and business tycoons (or the amount of money they had to toss around). Lovers of flora and fauna can enjoy manicured gardens, vibrant fall colours, or spot specimens of urban wildlife. Park-like atmospheres lend themselves to cycling, running, walking, or other forms of exercise meant to delay a permanent move to the graveyard.
This week, Torontoist celebrates the city’s cemeteries through visits to five of them, along with the story of one that is as deceased as those who were buried there.
Our series begins with a trek out to the east end to wander around St. John’s Norway Cemetery at Kingston Road and Woodbine Avenue. While other local burial grounds have attracted grand, ego-boosting monuments, St. John’s has always been humbler in fulfilling its role as a place where average Torontonians can remember loved ones in a low-key setting.
The cemetery dates its beginnings to 1853, when local landowner Charles Coxwell Small (whose middle name lives on in a nearby avenue) deeded three acres to the Anglican church. The new religious institution was intended to serve the growing village of Norway, which was centred at the present-day intersection of Kingston and Woodbine. Bishop John Strachan consecrated both the cemetery and the original church building on July 1, 1855. Both spots were alternately known as St. John’s Norway and St. John’s Berkeley—some accounts note that Small tried to enforce the latter name for the community rather than the enduring one, which was inspired by the local Norway Pine harvesting industry. The cemetery underwent major expansions in 1905 and 1925. Though the cemetery has always been administered by the St. John’s Norway Anglican Church, it is considered a non-denominational burial ground. The grounds have been used as a set for films like To Die For and The Virgin Suicides.
Walking through St. John’s feels like a stroll through a small-town cemetery. There aren’t the massive monuments to millionaires that dot Mount Pleasant, nor the plaques that accompany notable historical figures in Cabbagetown’s graveyards. What you will find among St. John’s 35 acres are row upon row of tombstones on the higher elevations of the cemetery, and flat, nearly grown-over markers in the lower area. Roads within the cemetery are well-marked, though two-way traffic is impossible even for bicycles through the narrowest stretches.
Beyond families who left their names on local landmarks, such as the Ashbridges, the most recognizable figure buried in St. John’s Norway is Roland Caldwell Harris. During his reign as Toronto’s Commissioner of Public Works from 1912 to 1945, Harris supervised the construction of much of the city’s infrastructure, including the Prince Edward Viaduct and the water treatment plant that bears his name. His epitaph: “No ostentation mark’d his tranquil way. His duties all discharged without display.”
The area devoted to those who fell during the World Wars is undergoing refurbishment by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to provide legible, uniform markers. The war memorial, installed by the Royal Canadian Legion in September 1967, is an intriguingly abstract representation of a soldier standing guard over a steep hill.
What the grounds lack in glossiness they make up for in human interest stories. After reading a number of the tombstones, we felt as if there were more heartfelt epitaphs than average. The final messages range from favourite hymns and notes of regret upon a loved one’s passing, to humorous pop culture references (such as the marker in the cremation garden that reads “Beam me up Scotty”).
In the nervous laughter department, we discovered the resting place of a couple who bore the last name Death. The epitaph reads “Some day we’ll understand.”
Photos by Jamie Bradburn.