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.
Mount Pleasant Cemetery is much more than a burial spot for a century’s worth of Toronto elites. Beyond its historic tombs, it serves as one of North Toronto’s major parks, suitable for a leisurely run or quiet contemplation. The grounds act as an arboretum preserving a wide variety of tree species. A walk from the oldest to newest sections traces Toronto’s evolution from Anglo-Saxon stronghold to multicultural city. You could spend days uncovering Mount Pleasant’s many gems, from surveying the personal mementos inside the main mausoleum to reading epitaphs that ask a simple question: “Well, now what?”
To forestall overcrowding at the Necropolis, the Toronto Burying Grounds Trust purchased a 200-acre farm on Yonge Street in 1873. Designer Henry Engelhardt’s layout was inspired by the park-like graveyards emerging in American cities. The early appearance of Mount Pleasant was described in the cemetery’s 1876 rule book:
Commodious and inviting foot-paths wind around every hill, and explore each dale and shady nook, whence crystal springs bubble forth into beautiful streams. The waters of Spring Creek have been dammed up in several places, and Cascades, Lakes and Ponds have been formed with rustic bridges leading over them; and what was once a rough and impassable ravine bears now the impress of art, and can be visited by persons either in carriages or on foot.
Among the first burials were the remaining unclaimed remains from the Potter’s Field cemetery at Bloor and Yonge, which had officially closed 20 years earlier. When the cemetery officially opened on November 4, 1876, the Globe called Mount Pleasant “a quiet resting place for the people’s dead.” Among the early rules: tickets were required for entry; children had to be accompanied by adults; horses were allowed by special permit only; carriage drivers had to remain in their coach seats during funeral services; burials were not permitted on Sunday unless a doctor determined that the person being placed in the ground had a communicable disease; and no bathing, dogs, fishing, picnics, skating, smoking, or washing were allowed.
The cemetery is divided by Mount Pleasant Road—to get from one side to the other, we recommend taking the underpass on the north side. The older western section is where you’ll find the earliest burials, main mausoleum, grand tombs, and most of the recognizable names. The eastern portion includes the Garden of Remembrance, scattering grounds, and, especially as you approach Bayview Avenue, a better representation of the multicultural diversity of present-day Toronto. The winding roads are part of the Belt Line trail and attract plenty of cyclists, joggers, and runners.
It’s easier to list off who isn’t buried in Mount Pleasant than who is. Pick up a copy of Mike Filey’s book Mount Pleasant Cemetery: An Illustrated Guide for a comprehensive who’s who of the cemetery’s permanent residents. Memorials that we suspect are among the most visited are those for Frederick Banting, Charles Best, war hero Billy Barker, the Eaton family, Glenn Gould, Foster Hewitt, Punch Imlach, William Lyon Mackenzie King, and the Massey family (whose mausoleum was designed by Old City Hall architect E.J. Lennox).
The Garden of Remembrance and its neighbouring wooded trail provide a relaxing atmosphere to rest and reflect. On the day of our photo shoot, we noticed a man quietly working on his computer while sitting next to the fountain pond.
For over-the-top absurdity, it’s hard to beat the ego-driven monument to Knob Hill Farms founder and onetime Maple Leafs owner Steve Stavro that greets visitors to the western section as they enter from Mount Pleasant Road. There’s some self-inflation at work in depicting yourself as a classical emperor wearing a laurel-leaf crown, with a pack of lions standing guard. Top it off with a statue of Alexander the Great on horseback, and you’re left with a memorial that might cause business titans of old, like the Eatons and Masseys, to turn in their graves.
Additional material from Rules and Regulations of the Mount Pleasant Cemetery (Toronto: Toronto Burying Grounds Trust, 1876) and the November 6, 1876, edition of the Globe.
Photos by Jamie Bradburn/Torontoist.