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. Over the course of this week, we’ll visit some of the city’s most interesting.
It’s tough for a cemetery to feel alive. But situated in its picturesque plot beside the delicate porches of Cabbagetown’s residential homes, sandwiched between Wellesley Park and Riverdale Park West, with sounds of childish squeals echoing from Riverdale Farm across the street, it’s easy to imagine that the Necropolis Cemetery is the pulsing beat within the heart of the neighbourhood.
One of the first burial grounds in Toronto, Potter’s Field, used to lie in the area that is now Yonge and Bloor. Luckily, Toronto pioneers had the foresight to predict the Holt Renfrews and Starbucks of the future and moved many of the 6,700 bodies southeast to an 18.25-acre plot of land known as the Necropolis Cemetery (the others were moved to the Mount Pleasant Cemetery) in 1850.
Among the bodies re-interred in the Necropolis were approximately 984 early settlers of the Town of York, which now lie in a section of the grounds entitled “The Resting Place of the Pioneers,” including some extremely recognizable names among past citizens from all walks of life. Along with the cemetery, the Necropolis consists of a chapel, lodge, and porte-cochère that represent some of Toronto’s best High Victorian Gothic architecture and the first crematorium in Ontario.
At first glance, the grounds of the Necropolis seem much smaller than the 18.25 acres it claims. But exploring the land’s eastern edge along Bayview Avenue reveals a steep decline with most of the stones somehow defying gravity and remaining upright. A couple of staircases make the graves more accessible, but those lower-lying areas (almost at level with the cars speeding by) are sparsely filled. On the main grounds the stones are mostly understated and simple, with a few crypts and larger monuments for more well-known historical figures scattered throughout. A paved pathway directs visitors through the eastern side of the cemetery and about halfway down the steep hill, while the western area is open for wandering, also yielding peeks at the Cabbagetown residences that border the grounds.
As we mentioned, the Necropolis Cemetery received many of Toronto’s early settlers from the original Potter’s Field burial grounds. Among the names known across Toronto is Bloor Street namesake Joseph Bloor, “Underground Railroad” traveller and founder of Toronto’s first cab company Thornton Blackburn, the first Canadian-born black surgeon Anderson Ruffin Abbott, and archaeologist Joseph Burr Tyrrell. Upon an ivy-covered plaque are the names of twelve “well-known Canadians having served their country and their fellow citizens well,” including Toronto’s first mayor William Lyon Mackenzie, journalists John Ross Robertson, and George Brown (and his killer George Bennett), and champion oarsman Ned Hanlan. And though many of of the gravestones are subtle and unimposing, one that stands out is a stocky grey stone pillar in memory of Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews, who were hanged for their part in the Rebellions of 1837.
Our Favourite Parts
While the resting places of some of Toronto’s most well-known names are of course worth a visit, the Necropolis features some plots that stand out for other reasons.
Instead of traditional memorials, several graves make their mark by creating mini gardens. A bamboo fence outlines one area filled with large leafy greens, another is covered with potted orange and white daisies and tea light lanterns, and Judith Anne Rance and Ronald Rance have a testament to their love for gardening with a rake, pruning shears, plants, and lawn ornaments adorning their plot.
But of course, not all monuments are so jovial. We’re quickly made sombere by the simple epitaph on the grave of a child, “Our dear little Mabel.” Infants are, sadly, not uncommon among the city’s graveyards. But the Necropolis’s neighbourhood location within earshot of Cabbagetown kids playing street hockey, eating Sunday night BBQ, and enjoying a Halloween party at Riverdale Farm, pulls us out of the time warp that comes from exploring the city’s history.
Photos by Carly Maga/Torontoist.