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.
During the Halloween seasons in 2011 and 2012, I wrote a series of articles for Torontoist on the city’s cemeteries. This year I’m mixing those pieces with updates and new stories. This piece was originally published on Torontoist on October 31, 2012.
In the north end of Forest Hill, Roselawn Avenue is a residential street that serves as both a bike route and a handy alternative to driving along Eglinton Avenue. East of Bathurst Street, it’s lined for nearly two blocks by a Jewish cemetery divided into more than 20 small sections, each one serving a different synagogue, fraternal organization, or sick-benefit society. (The latter were groups that helped members of their community by providing things like medical coverage, loans, death benefits, and burial plots in graveyards.) Compared to the excesses on display in other burial grounds, Roselawn’s lack of grandiose monuments makes for an austere visit, focused on contemplation of those who have passed on.
Though Jewish graveyards like Pape Avenue Cemetery (now known as Holy Blossom Cemetery) operated in Toronto as early as the mid-19th century, none existed to serve communities outside city limits until the early 20th century. After an incident in 1906 where a Jewish man was killed in a suburban accident and had to be buried in a Christian graveyard, Goel Tzedec Synagogue member Samuel Weber purchased land on Roselawn Avenue, in York Township, and donated it to the first of many organizations that would operate its burial plots. The man whose death inspired the cemetery was reinterred in Roselawn soon after its establishment. It was one of the first landmarks of the north–Bathurst Street Jewish community we know today.
Roselawn is modest. There are no curving drives, no towering monuments, no carefully cultivated gardens or reflecting pools. The cemetery’s sections are divided by fencing. Inside each section are neat rows of markers, many of which have been restored after years of decay or vandalism. For a sense of how the plots appeared before they were rehabilitated, check the Leibovitzer Weber section next to Caldow Road, where some aging tombstones have fallen and others lean perilously. As per Jewish burial tradition, many graves are topped with small stones.
On our stroll of Roselawn’s sections, the most recognizable person we found was newspaperman Martin Goodman, whose name graces Toronto’s waterfront recreation trail. Goodman rose rapidly through the ranks of the Toronto Star. He was a cub reporter at age 23, managing editor at 33, editor-in-chief at 36, and president at 43. He was also known as a fierce competitor on the softball field. After his cancer diagnosis, Goodman wanted to play one more season so badly that he asked doctors to inject his chemotherapy in his left arm to save the right for pitching.
You could easily create a photo essay built around the signage marking each section of Roselawn. Entrances range from wooden lawn signs and simple plaques to ornate gateways.
Sources: The Jews of Toronto: A History to 1937 by Stephen A. Speisman (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1979) and the December 21, 1981 edition of the Toronto Star.
A couple of updates:
- In 2016 journalist and longtime 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer was buried at Roselawn.
- A 2017 article in the Canadian Jewish News looked into the neglected portions of the cemetery.
Some of the entrance gates as they appeared in 2012…