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.
Today, the busy intersection of Bloor and Parliament seems an awkward spot for one of Toronto’s most historic cemeteries. The surroundings aren’t exactly scenic, and the cars buzzing by don’t do anything to stimulate quiet contemplation, mourning, or reflection. But at the time of its opening in 1844, when most of the city’s 18,000 residents lived within a 10-minute walk of the waterfront, Bloor and Parliament was practically the boonies. The St. James Cemetery, Toronto’s oldest cemetery still in operation, is now the namesake of the neighbourhood that has since grown around it. And with some of Toronto’s most familiar names permanently etched within the grounds, it has become a reflection of the city’s history both inside and outside the wrought iron gates that surround it.
The original St. James Cemetery was a tiny plot, situated beside the Anglican St. James Cathedral at what is now King and Church streets. Already by 1797, the Church’s administration knew it wouldn’t be able to handle much more growth, let alone the population boom between 1832 and 1844; the town of “Muddy York” had grown from 9,00 to 18,000 residents. So they looked north, way north, to the Don River and established a large acreage of land to become the “new” St. James Cemetery planned and laid out by the English architect and artist John G. Howard.
Situated so far from town life, the addition of the funeral chapel of St. James-the-Less 17 years after the cemetery opened, gave the site additional functions. Designed by one of Toronto’s most esteemed architectural firms, Cumberland and Storm (responsible for much of the University of Toronto), it is considered one of the country’s best examples of High Victorian Gothic architecture, and was designated a national historic site by Parks Canada in 1990. In 1948, a crematorium was added to the chapel, and is now one of Ontario’s busiest.
Like the nearby Necropolis Cemetery, the St. James Cemetery lies on the edge of the same steep decline down to the Don River. But unlike the Necropolis, almost every foot of space is taken up by a stone, square plaque, or one of the site’s many mausoleums. Staircases and pathways leading down to lower plateaus from the main grounds make accessing several of these separate sections, some used as cremation burial sites, quite easy. Others, however, require more adventurous crypt creepers who aren’t afraid of some uphill climbs.
The entrance to main grounds is found directly off the east side of Parliament Street, just north of Wellesley. The Chapel of St. James-the-Less takes the most prestigious spot (as designed by Howard), with a pathway snaking around the building throughout the rest of the grounds to the north, east, and south.
As the oldest cemetery in Toronto still in operation, St. James has seen a whole lot of Toronto come, and a whole lot more of Toronto go. So understandably, many who have left are now found among the gravestones there. Names found across Toronto and the GTA, like Jarvis, Brock, Scadding, Robarts, Mulock, Cawthra, both Gooderham and Worts (of the Distillery District), and Egerton Ryerson (a relative of the guy Ryerson University and its mascot Eggy are named after), are also found within the St. James grounds.
The Austin family mausoleum honours James Austin, founder of the TD Bank, while a plaque decrees the burial grounds of William Pearce Howland, a father of Canadian Confederation. Casimir Gzowski, the rebellious Polish engineer and railway builder is buried here, as is the architect responsible for Casa Loma and Old City Hall, E. J. Lennox. We could go on.
Our Favourite Parts
One of the first sights that hits you upon entering the front gates is a tall pillar, the metal green with rust and the stone black and weather worn—the most distressed monument in the grounds. On top, a pair of keys on a chain carved into the stone have softened from erosion, and details around the base are nothing more than smooth bumps. But the monument for Samuel Aldridge, who died at age 75 in 1849, describes him as a “Faithful and patient porter of Upper Canada College” for 20 years and was erected by the students the year he died in a touching act of thanks for his guidance over his time there.
Other shrines range from lavishly ornamental headstones to starkly simple crosses, but a twisted and warped stone with a painted epitaph is one of the most enigmatic pieces around. The grave of F.W. Cumberland’s own children, and its state of deterioration, is one of the darkest.
But perhaps the most memorable area comes as a surprise to those pursuing a sloping pathway along the north edge of the cemetery. A large number of stones are placed on one of the aforementioned steeply declining hills, and while some seem to defy the laws of gravity, it clearly has not been a friend to others.
Photos by Carly Maga/Torontoist.
CORRECTION: October 31, 9:30 PM This article originally mistakenly identified the Egerton Ryerson buried in St. James Cemetary as the person Ryerson University is named after. Ryerson University is named after a different Egerton Ryerson, who is buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery. The Egerton Ryerson buried in St. James is a relative.