I’ve written previously about why I walk – for exercise, for exploration, for contemplation, for escape. One of my favourite walks in Toronto is through Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where all of those reasons find a place.
I wandered through recently with a more specific purpose in mind. My friend Paul passed away 6 years ago on Thanksgiving Day, and so in mid-October I wanted to pay a visit and lift a toast to his spirit.
It’s beautiful there any time of the year, but I have to admit that autumn is my favourite time. The trees were just starting to turn, and there was enough of a chill in the air, despite the sunshine, that you could feel the change in seasons.
It felt like the autumn scene would soon resemble winter.
But as I walked I thought about the history of Toronto as it’s reflected in the graves and monuments around me. The older parts of the cemetery date to the 1870’s and 1880’s, and the great and good of Toronto at that time have Anglo-Scottish names that testify to the dominant waves of immigration that arrived then – names like Gage, Eaton, Massey, and Strachan are prominent as are the mausoleums they built for themselves.
The waves of immigrants from the British Isles are also reflected in monuments like the one erected by the St. Andrew Society to commemorate the many Scottish families that came to Canada.
Mount Pleasant Cemetery is also a place of history, holding the graves and monuments to many of the men who fought for Canada during World Wars 1 and 2. Some of these monuments are grand, like that for George Barker.
Others are quieter and in some ways more powerful. There is a section of the cemetery dedicated to veterans who passed away at the nearby Sunnybrook Hospital, which was built during World War 2 to help heal the many casualties of that war. Each grave is marked by a simple headstone that lists a name and branch of the service. It’s in a quiet wooded section of the cemetery, and the peacefulness is welcome when you think of what those men must have experienced.
In other sections of the cemetery, new waves of immigration are reflected in their names – the Anglo-Scottish are joined by the Italian, the Greek, the German, the Ukrainian, the Chinese, the Japanese, and many others. It’s the melting pot of Toronto illustrated in stone.
And then there is the personal history, the history of friends and family we knew. The history of a city and of grand families may be familiar to us in a general sense, but the history of a person we knew is much deeper and closer. Touching that history to recall laughter and rich conversation – that’s the essence of a cemetery.
Mount Pleasant has the Forest of Remembrance where ashes can be scattered in a wooded grove. When I’m walking through the Cemetery I usually pass through and pause at the stone that bears a plaque with Paul’s name. I say hello, and let him know how Fiona and the kids are doing. This visit I also raised a flask of Irish whisky and drank a toast. Sláinte.
The other functions of a cemetery – as history, as places of exercise, as places of beauty – all reinforce that main purpose, of remembrance. I walk in graveyards because I need the walk as exercise, because I’m interested in the history they relate, because I crave the quiet atmosphere and the beauty of the setting, and most of all because they connect me to the past as well as to the future we all come to.
As I was leaving the cemetery and walking up the busy Mount Pleasant Road, the image of the fence around the cemetery stuck in my mind. Is the fence to keep people out, or is it to keep the memories in? I think it’s a boundary, separating the memories we want to hold close from the outside world that rushes by because there are things to do and living to get on with. We know that, we know the world has to carry on, but we want to remember. That’s what cemeteries are for.