Toronto Cemetery Sojourns: York

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 November 1, 2012

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A block west of Mel Lastman Square, the greenery of York Cemetery provides an escape from the endless concrete of North York’s central strip. Amid its gardens and monuments reside tales of heroes, rebels, and royalty.

History

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The property was settled around 1805 by Joseph Shepard, one of several people Sheppard Avenue may have been named after. The site passed to his son Michael, a farmer who operated a mill near the present-day North York IKEA. Michael and his brothers were prominent supporters of William Lyon Mackenzie, Toronto’s first mayor and leader of the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837.

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The Shepards are said to have hidden the rebel mayor before he fled to the United States after his uprising fizzled. When Michael and his brother Thomas were released from jail after a brief stay, they followed Mackenzie south. Michael was pardoned in 1843, and he returned to the farm. By 1850, he had completed the farmhouse that currently serves as the cemetery’s office.

The property was purchased in 1916 by the Toronto General Burying Grounds, the forerunner of the Mount Pleasant Group, but no one was interred until July 1948. Some of the Shepard land, between Beecroft Road and Yonge Street, was later sold to build the North York Civic Centre and its associated projects.

Grounds

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The entrance from Beecroft Road is a divided boulevard dominated by a massive war-memorial cenotaph, dedicated in 1963. It bears a quote from 19th-century politician Joseph Howe:

A wise nation preserves its records—gathers up its muniments, decorates the tombs of its illustrious dead, repairs its great public structures and fosters national pride and love of country by perpetual reference to the sacrifices and glories of the past.

In 1986, the width of the roadway prompted then-city controller Howard Moscoe to ask North York council to study turning it into an extension of North York Boulevard, as a way of relieving traffic. Deemed an “intolerable desecration” by a fellow controller, the idea was quickly rejected. An apology letter was sent to cemetery officials.

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The grounds are dotted with special memorials ranging from a section devoted to the military to a monument to the Hungarian community. Near the office are a waterfall-laden “Garden of Remembrance” and a recently built columbarium, powered by solar and geothermal energy.

Like Mount Pleasant Cemetery, York is divided in half by a busy street. While the section east of Senlac Road is flat, hills dot the western portion.

Notable Names

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You won’t find stacks of coffee cups or empty doughnut boxes placed beside the grave of Tim Horton. What you will see is the epitaph “T.T.F.N. Daddy-O.” (That is, ta-ta for now.) Architect Uno Prii, also buried at York, was responsible for the curving modernist apartment buildings of the Annex. Broadcaster Barbara Frum’s gravesite bears an ornate gate and is lined with red stones. Percy Saltzman’s tombstone recognizes his role as “Canada’s First TV Weatherman.”

Favourite Spots

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Not far from Tim Horton’s gravesite lies genuine royalty. Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna was the youngest sister of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and cousin of King George V of England. Forced to marry an older duke, she had the unconsummated marriage annulled by her brother in 1916 to wed her true love, Colonel Nikolai Kulikovsky. After the Russian Revolution, the Kulikovskys fled to the Crimea, which prevented them from being murdered by the Bolsheviks alongside the Tsar’s family. There were close calls on their flight out of Russia. (After being arrested, they were saved when officials argued at length over executing the couple.) They stayed in Olga’s mother’s homeland, Denmark, until 1948, where the duchess was often called upon to debunk pretenders, like the woman who claimed to be her niece Anastasia.

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Fearing assassination by the KGB to extinguish the her claim to the Russian throne, the Kulikovskys moved to Canada in 1948. They settled in Cooksville, where the duchess preferred to be known as Olga. She developed a reputation as cat lady, and showcased her art at Eaton’s College Street store. Before her death in 1960, Olga briefly lived with friends above a beauty salon on Gerrard Street East. She is memorialized with a sizable cross and a special plaque.

Sources: The Final Word: The Book of Canadian Epitaphs by Nancy Millar (Victoria: Brindle & Glass, 2004), the November 25, 1960 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the July 4, 1986 and August 26, 1996 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Globe and Mail, November 25, 1960.

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Toronto Star, November 25, 1960.

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“Last farewell: Carrying Tim Horton’s casket to burial plot in York Cemetery yesterday are pall bearers (clockwise) Dave Keon, Bobby Baun, Allan Stanley, Billy Harris, George Armstrong and Dick Duff–all former Maple Leaf teammates of Horton.” Photo by Ron Bull, originally published in the February 26, 1974 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Star Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0055643f.

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Toronto Star, February 26, 1974.

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Gravesite of architect Uno Prii, noted for his space-age, curvy apartment towers in the city

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More photos from my 2012 stroll through the grounds. 

Toronto Cemetery Sojourns: Potter’s Field

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 as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on October 29, 2011.

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Bloor and Yonge: subway junction, pedestrian scramble, long-term construction hoarding, gateway to Yorkville’s high-end shopping. While waiting on the northwest corner for the traffic light to turn, you may notice a silver plaque on the side of 2 Bloor West. Long before the beautiful people entered the neighbourhood, this was a site where the city’s pioneering outcasts received a respectful final rest. As the first cemetery in Toronto that wasn’t tied to a particular religious faith, it set the course for future burial grounds where almost anyone could be buried.

By the mid-1820s, burying the dead was becoming an issue in “Muddy York.” As people moved into small dwellings, graves on personal property grew rare. Cemeteries existed, but only for particular faiths. If you were a good Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian or Roman Catholic, there wasn’t a problem. But if you didn’t subscribe to those branches of Christianity, suffered from mental illness, embraced a dissipated lifestyle, or had committed murder, your remains were bound for rejection out of fear they would foul consecrated ground.

This raised the ire of prominent local figures like the ever-fiery William Lyon Mackenzie. “We think that to perpetuate sectarianism even beyond the grave,” Mackenzie wrote in a December 1825 edition of the Colonial Advocate, “is very preposterous in a Christian country, and are sure that the majority of the liberal and well-informed throughout the earth, think as we do on this subject.” Mackenzie urged the government of Upper Canada to create legislation so that in “some convenient part of each township” of the colony, land would be set aside for a publicly operated non-denominational burial ground.

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Grave of Thomas Carfrae Jr. in the Necropolis

Mackenzie was among those present at a meeting held the previous month for “inhabitants of York friendly to the purchasing of a public burial place for all classes and sects.” Another attendee was merchant Thomas Carfrae Jr., who shared Mackenzie’s Scottish background but not his radical politics. Carfrae’s campaigning for a petition to support an open cemetery resulted in a parliamentary act approving the creation of such a site in January 1826. Five months later, six acres were purchased for 75 pounds by Carfrae and four other men, all of whom served as the new cemetery’s first trustees.

Sadly, the first burial was Carfrae’s infant daughter Mary, who was laid to rest on July 18, 1826. Four more members of his family joined Mary in the cemetery over the next seven years. Despite these many causes for grief, Carfrae was a busy man—besides his role in establishing Potter’s Field, he was also involved in the founding of the York Fire Company, St. Andrew’s Church, and the York Mechanics institute (the forerunner of the Toronto Public Library). He served as an alderman on Toronto’s first city council in 1834, was appointed customs collector in 1835, and was named harbour master in 1838. He reunited with his family in Potter’s Field following his death from a stroke in June 1841 at the age of 44.

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One of the surviving Potter’s Field tombstones at Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

Throughout its existence, the cemetery was known by a variety of names. The official name was the York General Burying Ground (which was changed to Toronto after the city renamed itself in 1834), but was alternately known as the Strangers’ Burying Ground, as those tended to be the types who made up the early burials. The name that caught on, Potter’s Field, was a biblical reference to the fate of Judas and his blood money in Matthew 27:7, which was used to buy a “potter’s field, to bury strangers in.”

Burials were light during the early years, until a cholera epidemic hit during the summer of 1832. Besides the heavy toll that disease claimed, burials increased as the new village of Yorkville grew around the cemetery. When compiling the causes of death for those buried in Potter’s Field, genealogist Elizabeth Hancocks was struck by “the nature of the bare-fact entries, many of which seem to possess an eloquence that carries well beyond the grave.” Among the frequent forms of death that caught her attention: “felled by tree.”

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The original tombstone for hanged rebels Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews. A larger memorial was built beside it in the Necropolis in 1893.

By the end of the 1840s, the cemetery neared capacity. As the population grew in Toronto and Yorkville, there was concern that Potter’s Field would run out of space for future burials. The trustees successfully lobbied the colonial government for legislation that widened their ranks and allowed the purchase of more land. The Necropolis, which had been established independently of the trust in 1850, relieved the pressure on Potter’s Field, but not enough for the residents of Yorkville. Just as bohemians and hippies were redeveloped out of the neighbourhood a century later, the dead were given the boot in 1855 after the government honoured a petition to close the cemetery.

The trustees were given the power to sell the land once all 6,685 people buried there were moved elsewhere. Families of the deceased were offered the choice of moving their loved ones’ remains themselves or having the remains transplanted to new plots in the Necropolis. Among those moved east were the Carfrae family and 1837 rebellion martyrs Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews.

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Plaque at the corner of Sumach Street and Winchester Street noting the move of remains from Potter’s Field to the Necropolis.

One problem: there were plenty of remains that nobody claimed. To the consternation of Yorkville residents, and presumably those eager to redevelop the land, the cemetery sat for two more decades. By 1874 everyone’s patience had run out, so the Ontario government gave the trustees the right to remove any remains that were still in Potter’s Field 20 years after it had officially closed. When the anniversary passed, the unclaimed were moved to both the Necropolis and the new Mount Pleasant Cemetery. As the Globe noted when Mount Pleasant officially opened in 1876, “In a mound here lie the bones of about 3,000 persons which could not be identified. The remains of old and young persons of every Christian denomination, coloured and white people alike, here rest together in one common grave.”

By 1881, moving was finished and the site was soon built over. “Where the marble columns once stood, and the house to receive the departed was once erected,” wrote the anonymous scribe of an early 20th century guide to Toronto’s cemeteries, “now stand the splendid villas of the living.” Though the silver plaque is the only reminder of Potter’s Field’s existence within Yorkville, grave markers survive in Mount Pleasant Cemetery and the Necropolis. The trust that operated the cemetery went through numerous name changes before adopting its current identity as the Mount Pleasant Group. Some graveyards that had been strictly denominational, like the Anglican-run St. James, gradually began permitting burials of those who didn’t subscribe to the operator’s faith. Though sectarian cemeteries continue to exist, the inclusive visions of Thomas Carfrae Jr. and William Lyon Mackenzie that created Potter’s Field were realized throughout Ontario.

Additional material from Historical Sketch Toronto, Canada 1826-1905 (Toronto: Toronto General Burying Grounds Trust, 1905), Potter’s Field Cemetery 1826-1855 otherwise called The Strangers’ Burying Ground compiled by Elizabeth Hancock (Toronto: Generation Press, 1983), the December 8, 1825 edition of the Colonial Advocate, and the November 6, 1876 edition of the Globe.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Colonial Advocate, December 8, 1825.

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York Commercial Directory, Street Guide, and Register 1833-4 (York: Thomas Dalton, 1833)