The Cemeteries

Cemeteries are designated consecrated places in which the dead are deposited. The word comes from the Greek koimeterion or the Latin coemeterium, meaning “to lie down to rest” or “to sleep.” This usage alludes to the Christian belief in resurrection; but burial is not only a Christian practice — it is found all around the world, as is cremation and other ways of remembering those who have died and disposing of their bodies.

The Cemeteries, Globe, November 21, 1868
The Cemeteries, Globe, November 21, 1868

The First St. James Cemetery: The Anglican Church Yard

The first St. James Church (Anglican), colourized by Joanne Doucette

Land was set aside in 1797 for a graveyard next to St. James Church, Toronto’s first Anglican Church, built 1803-4, and the site of today’s St. James’ Cathedral. Some of the original gravestones can be seen near the entrance to the Cathedral. Thousands of burials had taken place on very small plots of ground; these places filled up. St. James churchyard had burials five or six coffins deep and even buried vertically. At the same time, Toronto became more crowded, densely packed and real estate values rose.

St. James Cemetery, Parliament Street

St. James Cemetery is Toronto’s first “garden cemetery”. France’s Pere-Lachaise (1804) has become known as the first of the “garden” cemeteries. It was named after the confessor priest of Louis XIV and is probably the most celebrated burial ground in the world. It became known around the world for its size and beauty — landscaped and fashioned with pathways for carriages. Paris set the fashions for clothes and graveyards and North America followed.

The first garden cemetery in North America was Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, consecrated in 1831. It was planned as an “oasis” on the outskirts of the city and defined a new romantic kind of cemetery with winding paths and a forested setting. It was an immediate success and inspired many other garden cemeteries across North America and in Britain.

From the College we drove to the Cemetery, and the ‘city of the dead’ was, perhaps, the finest thing I saw in or near Boston. The guide-books say that you may wander about through the walk a distance of forty miles without twice visiting the same spot. It is almost one’s beau-ideal of a cemetery, neatly kept, thickly studded with trees, quiet and remote from all noise or bustle; if a man has a vein of tender melancholy in him, this is precisely the place to move him. Globe September 19, 1850

In 1832, the London Cemetery Company opened the first public cemetery at Kensal Green. It was made up of 54 acres of open ground and was outside the city at the time. By moving the dead out of the city center to places like those beside the Don, these “rural cemeteries” allowed for much larger burial grounds and ceremonially removed the dead from the immediate realm of the living.

Field Marks of the Garden Cemetery

The pathway along the south wall, St. James Cemetery.

1. out in the country, away from the town centre

2. careful siting, use of topography: shady glens, vistas

3. complexity: cities of the dead.

4. civilized nature: herbs, shrubs, understory, canopy (to a naturalist’s eyes)

5. rolling lawns (manicured grass), shrubs, groves of trees (arboretums),

6. water features; a lake, pond or stream

7. recreations of picturesque architecture

8. elaborate entrance gates that mark the fact that you’re leaving the mundane world behind.

9. winding roads and paths

Parks were non-existent so poor people, and even their “betters”, flocked to cemeteries for picnics, for hunting and shooting and carriage racing, Sunday carriage drives and casual strolls.

The trend spread beyond the concept of the landscaped cemetery to include grand and well-designed city parks, many linked to the pioneering work of Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture. Olmsted and his visionary colleagues designed parks as famous as New York’s Central Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace, and extensive park systems were created in Buffalo, Milwaukee, and Chicago. Toronto’s High Park, Queen’s Park, Riverdale Park. They also laid out the plans for grand and green college campuses across North America such as that at the University of Toronto. As parks arose, the recreational use of the open areas of cemeteries diminished in importance.

John G. Howard’s original layout of St. James Cemetery.

John G. Howard laid out the cemetery grounds in 1844. The cemetery was necessary as the burial ground around the cathedral itself, in use since 1797, was out of room. At that time most of the city’s population of 18,000 lived south of Queen Street and the cemetery location at Bloor and Parliament Streets must have been regarded as being well out in the country. According to records kept by the rector of St. James, Henry James Grasett, the church wardens bought the grounds in the early summer of 1844. They purchased 60 acres lying between the Cayley property and the Park from William Henry Boulton for 250 pounds. They planned on spending an additional 2,500 pounds laying it out and landscaping it. In the first few weeks workmen, removed more than 1,000 stumps and tastefully laid out, winding walks under the superintendence of J.G. Howard Esq.” They planned a chapel: On a little knoll, a short distance fm. the entrance, timber being prepared for erection of a small chapel 23 x 40 ft. but the Chapel of St. James the Less wasn’t built until later. The chapel opened for funerals in 1861. (It served for many years as a Parish church to the neighbourhood.)

The Chapel of St. James-the-Less, St. James Cemetery, photo by Joanne Doucette

The first grave dug in St. James’ Cemetery was on the 14th September, 1844, for the burial of Elizabeth Whitewings, a baby girl two months old. (Globe, Jan. 1, 1886) Bishop John Strachan consecrated the ground on June 5, 1845. By the end of the month there were already 20 burials here. St. James Cemetery was built just in time for Black ’47 and the influx of refugees from the Potato Famine. Over 300 buried here and about 800 at the Catholic Cemetery on Power St. (Globe, Feb. 2, 1848). The new immigrants bought typhus and cholera with them on their “coffin ships”. Cholera returned in 1851, 1853, and 1854.

the mortality since the commencement of the present month, has been about five times the average rate. There is nothing in this fact to create undue alarm, but it is well that it should be stated, in order that the public may see the necessity of using every precaution, in regard to diet, cleanliness, etc., so long as the seeds of disease are abroad in the atmosphere to a more than usual extent.” … This shows a very remarkable increase on last week, the average then being about twelve a day, while now it is twenty-eight. We believe that the excitement and intemperance attending on the election are partly the causes of the increase. Globe July 31 1854

The city burial grounds vie with the city parks in their attractions, particularly St. James’ Cemetery, the Necropolis, Mount Pleasant cemetery, and St. Michael’s Cemetery, are thronged with people out for a walk, sauntering along the paths or resting in the shade. St. James’ Cemetery especially is popular in this respect. It is nearer to the centre of the city than any other, it has well kept paths, is better shaded than any other, and has the advantage of the beautiful and historic Castle Frank Road, which as a drive or walk is not excelled in the city. After the hurry and worry of the week, a Sunday afternoon spent in quietly sauntering about St. James’ Cemetery is a genuine treat. In view of the popularity of these places, the public will receive gladly the announcement of the improvements to be made in them. In the majority no very great changes can be expected, as they have been laid out, and little remains to be done except to maintain the existing state of affairs and make improvements in the details where possible. (Globe, April 15, 1881)

The planting of memorial trees helps to rejuvenate the older cemeteries like this one at St. James Cemetery dedicated to my younger sister.

In 1887 the Rosedale creek trunk sewer was built and a road allowance surveyed beside the sewer. The road allowance was 66 feet wide and ran two miles from Yonge to the Don River. The Cemetery fenced its property along the route of the new road. The new road transformed the Rosedale Valley ravine. (Globe, March 12 1892).

The Cemeteries, Globe, November 21, 1868

St. Paul’s Burying Ground

Toronto’s first Roman Catholics were buried in the graveyard of St. Paul’s Church, built in 1822 but that burial ground too filled up quickly, especially during the Potato Famine (1847-1850). The risks to public health came not only from the dank odors of the churchyards but from the very water the people drank. In many cases, the springs for the drinking supply tracked right through the graveyards.

Death house – Coffins awaiting burial in St. Michael’s Cemetery, constructed 1855. Photo by Graham Bezant, September 14, 1980 TORSTAR License

Mount Hope Cemetery on Erskine Avenue opened in 1900, as the city’s Catholic population grew. Author Morley Callaghan, hockey pioneer Francis “King” Clancy and wrestling promoter Frank Tunney are among the historical figures interred at Mount Hope.

Further growth in the Catholic population after the Second World War necessitated the opening of Holy Cross Cemetery (1954), Resurrection Cemetery (1964), Assumption Cemetery in 1968 and Queen of Heaven Cemetery in 1985.

The Cemeteries, Globe, November 21, 1868
Location of Potters Field
The Cemeteries, Globe, November 21, 1868
Human remains recovered at 38 Bloor Street West, May 20, 1929

Potter’s Field

Toronto commuters and visitors hurrying through the subway’s main hub at Yonge and Bloor probably have no idea that it was once the site of another kind of “underground”: Potters Field or Strangers’ Burying Ground opened in 1825 but closed down a mere thirty years later. The bodies were reinterred at the Necropolis in Cabbagetown, a less central location. Potter’s Field, also called the Strangers’ Burying Ground, was opened in 1825 on Yonge Street, in Yorkville, opened in 1825 and was incorporated in 1826. it comprised six acres of land and was managed by Trustees. By an Act of Parliament, it was closed last year, when the Trustees purchased from the late proprietors, for the sum of 2,750 pounds. Globe, Dec. 13, 1856

The risks to public health came not from the dank odours of the graves but from the very water the people drank. In many cases, as in Yorkville’s Potters Field, the springs for the drinking supply tracked right through the graveyards. The call for the establishment of cemeteries away from the population center became louder after major typhus and cholera epidemics killed many immigrants and Torontonians too.

Holy Blossom Cemetery

Looking south on Pape Avenue from Gerrard towards Austin Avenue, February 19, 1930 On east side of Pape is the entrance to Holy Blossom Cemetery, since replaced. Just south of it was the Holy Blossom funeral chapel.

Toronto’s first Jewish cemetery, Holy Blossom, was established in 1849 in Leslieville. It closed in 1930.

Gates to Holy Blossom Cemetery. Photo by Joanne Doucette.
Detail Goads Atlas 1890 Plate 47 showing Austin Avenue before it was extended to Marjory Avenue. Holy Blossom Cemetery, commonly known as “The Jews’ Cemetery”, stretched from the lane north of Austin Avenue to Gerrard until it was further subdivided and lots sold to the Maple Leaf Skating Rink, and for houses on Gerrard.
1851 map showing the area before the construction of the Grand Trunk Railway (now the GO Train line). The Holy Blossom Cemetery is on Pape Avenue.

The Necropolis

The Necropolis’ “Resting Place of the Pioneers” was opened in 1850 to replace Potters Field. It is the final resting place of Joseph Bloor, George Brown, William Lyon Mackenzie and George Leslie, among many others.

TORONTO NECROPOLIS (excerpts from notice announcing its opening)

In the selection of a piece of ground for the formation of the Toronto Necropolis, the Directors endeavoured to keep in view, and secure certain advantages, which it appeared to them desirable, that every Cemetery should possess. The advantages referred to are the following, viz. – 1st. Amenity or beauty of situation. 2nd. Proximity to the City, or convenience of access, combining at the same time, with that peaceful seclusion which all admit to be so appropriately associated with the Grave, or the resting-place of the remains of departed relatives and friends. 3rd. The highest attainable security that the remains therein deposited shall continue undisturbed, and not liable to be removed or intruded upon, in any way; and this at such a moderate expense, as might be within the reach of all classes of the community. of situation…solitude and retirement…a convenient distance from the city, and at the same time is as secluded and retired as if it were at the distance of several miles…(Globe, July 27, 1850)

By the early 1880s new city parks and the Horticultural Gardens (now called Allan Gardens) were beginning to outcompete the cemeteries as they offered more conveniences, like drinking fountains and washrooms, along with picnic tables – more convenient than tombstones.

The Cemeteries, Globe, November 21, 1868
Gateway to the Toronto Necropolis, photo by Joanne Doucette
Interior view of the chapel, The Necropolis. Photo by Joanne Doucette.

Mount Pleasant Cemetery was opened in 1875. Among the luminaries buried on the grounds are former prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and pianist Glenn Gould.

The Cemeteries, Globe, November 21, 1868
Toronto Cemeteries, Globe, November 21, 1868 11a The Military Cemetery
The Military Burial Ground, Victoria Square, looking east to Portland Street, 1885
The Military Burying Ground, Strachan Avenue, west of Fort York, 1926

Published by Leslieville Historical Society

Welcome to the Leslieville Historical Society's website. Please feel free to join us, to ask questions, to attend walking tours and other events, and to celebrate Leslieville's past while creating our future. Guy Anderson, President, Leslieville Historical Society and Joanne Doucette, local historian and webmaster.

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