I sometimes avoid telling people that I’m interested in cemeteries, particularly the famed, old ones like the Toronto Necropolis. To history buffs and genealogists, they get it. To other people, not so much. Why would you go to a cemetery when you’re not visiting a loved one?
Well, for starters, the Necropolis is Toronto’s second non-denominational cemetery. It opened in 1850 after the closing of Potter’s Field in Yorkville and (some of) its inhabitants were moved to this one.
The two buildings that front the cemetery, found at the end of Winchester Street, are the 1872 Gothic Revival Chapel and the Victorian Gingerbread-style former gravekeeper’s residence (now offices).
A peek inside the cozy chapel produces a stunning stain glass window and vaulted ceiling.
It doesn’t take much wandering to realize that there’s nothing too orderly about the Necropolis. Graves with varying lifetimes are placed next to each other in a fashion that isn’t the row-on-row fashion that dominates our mental image of what a cemetery looks like.
That’s because the Necropolis exists in a quasi-parkland sort of setup that was part of a broader 19th century movement to make cemeteries more inviting. It certainly achieves that. It’s also an inviting place for the information it tells us about our society.
The Necropolis is rich in its story-telling potential: from macro political tales of the 1837 Upper Canada rebellion & the founding of Canada to the individual profiles of the first black mayor of Toronto or the first black doctor in Canada. It also gives us a chance to talk about everyday existence as it pertains to life and death of people throughout time.
Beginning just ahead of the chapel and roughly circling clockwise around the cemetery, amongst the notables I see are:
George Brown, founder of the Globe & father of Confederation.
A monument to the only two men hanged for the 1837 Rebellion. It purposely looks broken to signify a life cut short. The original gravestone stands in front.
The Lamb family, of which Daniel Lamb, who founded the Riverdale Zoo, was a member (although he is curiously buried elsewhere).
The Ward sisters, of which Ward’s Island is named, who drowned tragically in the harbour. Their stone, like many in the cemetery, is very weathered and illegible.
Anderson Ruffin Abbott, the first black doctor in Canada. He tended to Abraham Lincoln on the night of his death.
William Lyon Mackenzie, the leader of the previously mentioned rebellion, Toronto’s first mayor, and newspaper publisher. (I hope he’s not writing too critically about us down there.)
A couple of familiar Toronto street names in Yorkville’s Joseph Bloor(e) and Willowdale’s John Cummer Sr. of the Cummer family. The former possesses the creepiest portrait of any Toronto historical figure, while the latter were industrious North York pioneers with the giddiest name.
And most recently, former NDP leader Jack Layton with his smiling bust as sculpted by his widow, Olivia Chow.
But beyond the notables, it’s interesting to walk around and take in the kinds of stones, the tributes families have laid out for their loved ones, and the contours of the land.
There are garden-like walkups, ‘fenced’ off monuments, and beautiful sculptures. And lots of obelisks.
The Necropolis has some public art, one of which is entitled ‘Onwards’ – a reminder to move one with one’s life while also honouring those who have left us.
As I make my exit out of the Necropolis and get a final look at the chapel and cottage, I’m pretty convinced about the intrigue, beauty, and cultural significance of the Necropolis and places like it. Next time I’m asked Why?, I’ll be more inclined to say back Why not?.
For the final find of the afternoon – another buried tribute of sorts – there’s also a time capsule buried in front of cottage, one of quite a few in the city. Sadly, I don’t know if any of them will be opened in my lifetime.