Walking in a Graveyard

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.

Walk Journal – Jan 20, 2019

Location: Toronto – Forest Hill, Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Chaplin Estates

Duration: about 2.5 hours, around 12 km

Weather: Clear and cold, -15 C with a -28 C wind chill

Today’s walk was a chilly one, and a workout. We had some snow last night and today the temperatures were well down into negative numbers, with a brisk north wind to help cool things further. Even so, the sun was out and it was a winter scene that wanted a good walk, so off we went. We started out going west on Roselawn to Latimer and then south across Eglinton onto Russell Hill Road. We took that south, crossing the Beltline as we went.

The Beltline in the snow is always gorgeous

We kept going south on Russell Hill Road, through Forest Hill to Heath Street. Then we turned east and headed to Avenue Road, crossed it, went south on Oriole, and east on St. Clair to Yonge. There we popped into Zelden’s Diner for a proper winter brunch, and then back out into the cold. We headed north up Yonge with the wind in our faces, and at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, I went in and headed east while my wife headed home.

I did the full loop around the cemetery, crossing Mount Pleasant Road and looping around the eastern half over to Bayview and then back west across Mount Pleasant Road again, through the cemetery west to the northwest corner to connect to the Beltline. I took that over Yonge to Oriole Park, and then headed north through the Park and into the Chaplin Estates neighbourhood along Lascelles Boulevard all the way north to Eglinton, where I crossed into Eglinton Park and kept onwards north to Roselawn where I turned west and slogged up the hill to Avenue Road and home.

Mount Pleasant Cemetery on a chill winter’s day

Walking on a day like today, with hard crunchy snow underfoot, is a lot more tiring than walking on bare, dry roads. Your feet slip a little and so you shorten your stride and walk a bit flat-footed so that you keep more of the sole of your boots on the ground. That change in gait is less efficient that a full, free stride, and you work muscles you didn’t know you had – my hips are sore and so is my knee.

On top of that, with the cold and the wind, you need to be careful to manage your temperature. I wore 3 layers of clothing under my coat plus two layers on my legs, so at first I was warm but not overly warm. As I went on, however, my face was getting blasted and I could feel my cheeks freezing so I had to cover up to avoid frostbite. When I did that I started to overheat a bit. The last couple of km home were a grind, alternately too hot and too cold, with dragging feet and heavy legs, especially up the hill at Roselawn. I’m pretty gassed even now, a couple of hours later.

Still, walking in winter is always interesting. You could tell it was cold just by the crunchy sound of the snow when you walk on it, and with bright sunshine you needed sunglasses – I have a bit of a wind/sun burn on my face except around my eyes as a result.

Some folks are diligent about shovelling and some aren’t so there’s navigation challenges avoiding slippery bits. Others chuck salt about like it’s free so you feel like you’re walking on pebbles. Then there are the homes with heated driveways which melt the snow and cause the runoff to freeze into ice patches on the sidewalks and roads.

As you walk you pass others out, walking dogs or just walking, and you nod to each other acknowledging the cold and the challenge of being out in it. Numbskull drivers without winter tires spin wheels and slide about, making crossing streets a near contact sport for the pedestrians. Snow plows leave curbside snow ridges to be jumped, and snow blowers with unobservant operators make snowstorms to pass through.

Our winters, in truth, are not that long or severe compared to other parts of Canada. Usually it’s cold for about 3-4 months and there will be warm spells in there too, so when we get a cold snap and a bit of snow it’s more of a taste of real winter than a meal. Torontonians whine about winter, but we know deep down that we’re wimps compared to our fellow Canadians in Edmonton, Winnipeg, or Montreal. Walking on a day like today is a chance to pat ourselves on our red flannel backs while we sip our Tim Hortons double-doubles and dream of spring.