Walking around a cemetery isn’t every traveler’s idea of a good time. But for many historically minded visitors to Toronto
, the city’s many cemeteries are ideal places to learn about the figures who peopled “Old York” throughout its history. If you’ve never included a cemetery among your sightseeing destinations before, don’t forget to bring along a camera. Provided you are respectful of any mourners, you can easily get exquisite shots of historic gravestones, wrought iron gates, weeping willow trees and stretching green spaces. If you’re artistically inclined, bring along some paper and crayons, too, for gravestone rubbings. Hold the paper against whichever gravestone carving catches your eye and use the side of the crayon to transfer the relief onto the paper in vivid color.
Mount Pleasant Cemetery
In the affluent Moore Park neighborhood, Mount Pleasant Cemetery is among Toronto’s best spots for seeking out famous people’s gravesites or making a crayon rubbing. Since 1867, the cemetery has served as the final resting place for many of Toronto’s most famous citizens. You can still see where Timothy Eaton, the Massey family and William Lyon Mackenzie King are buried. While Toronto native Mary Pickford is not buried in the cemetery, attentive visitors may notice the family plot, where her father is buried. Aside from its famous “residents”, the cemetery is a prime setting for enjoying Toronto when the weather is nice. Nature lovers can see a tremendous diversity of trees, with a greater range of species than you’ll find in most of the city’s parks.
Mount Pleasant Cemetery
St. James Cemetery
On Parliament Street, just north of Wellesley, St. James Cemetery is among the oldest continuously used cemeteries in downtown Toronto. Moved to its current location in 1844, after the original 1797 cemetery became overcrowded, the cemetery is open to visitors year-round. With willows and hemlocks interspersed among the graves and the winding pathways, the cemetery was designed in the Victorian “Picturesque” style. During its first decades, the cemetery also served as a public green space, prior to the rise of public city parks. The cemetery’s crowning jewel is the Chapel of St. James-the-Less, a Gothic Revival church built in 1859. Architecture enthusiasts will appreciate the trefoil side windows, the thickly timbered roof beams and the detailed stained glass work in the chancel windows.
St. James Cemetery
With at least 500 years on any other cemeteries in town, Taber Hill is undisputedly the oldest burial place in greater Toronto. First used by the Iroquois in the 13th century, nearly 500 people are estimated to have been laid to rest on Taber Hill. The burial mound was discovered in the mid-20th century during a construction project. Since then, the site has been designated as government-protected lands. An historical plaque is set into a giant boulder to mark the location and detail the mound’s history. On the other side of the boulder monument, visitors can read an Iroquois prayer, dedicated to the memory of the buried. In the wintertime, the spot isn’t just popular among visitors on the cemetery circuit. It also makes an excellent place for sledding.
Pape Avenue Cemetery
A landmark to Toronto’s Jewish heritage, Pape Avenue Cemetery is the oldest Jewish burial site in the city. Since 1849, the South Toronto cemetery has seen many transformations of the surrounding area. Currently a residential district, the many homes of the Leslieville neighborhood nearly eclipse the cemetery from view unless you know what you’re looking for. While entry to the cemetery is limited to special city-wide “Open Doors” events, all year long you can peek through the magnificent entryway gates, which themselves merit a trip, just for the photo opportunity.
There isn’t much to see of Potter’s Field any longer. Situated at the intersection of Bloor and Yonge, the non-denominational cemetery was also known as the Toronto General Burying Grounds when it was established in 1826 as the first municipal cemetery. Since Potter’s Field wasn’t affiliated with any church, it served as the final resting place for individuals from an extraordinarilly broad range of backgrounds. The majority of the bodies were transported to the Necropolis in Cabbagetown when the cemetery closed in 1855. Others were moved to Mount Pleasant. Should you find yourself in the neighborhood, stop by the bustling intersection to see the commemorative plaque, all that remains now of the humble early graveyard.
The fall season is an especially fun time to walk and explore the history lurking in cemeteries