Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Curious Canadian Cemeteries: The Toronto Necropolis


Today on Curious Canadian Cemeteries we are going to take a look at the site that I got a chance to visit last weekend, the Toronto Necropolis!

Last weekend we went to Toronto for the long weekend to visit family, and I was surprised was a visit to the Necropolis. So without further adieu, lets take a look at an amazing, and high profile site! Get ready everyone, this site is amazing!

The Toronto Necropolis was established in 1850, making it the oldest surviving municipal non-denominational cemetery space in the City of Toronto. The only older site of this kind that I’m aware of in Canada in the Hamilton Cemetery, established in 1847. Non-denominational cemeteries became popular in urban centers with large, multi-faith populations that had to have some place to house their dead (remember, this is the mid 1800s, it’s not like cremation was a thing in Canada yet! That didn’t happened until 1901 in Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery). Non-denominational cemeteries were owned by the municipality, rather than a church parish, and offered a space for people of all faiths to be buried. The Toronto Necropolis remains open to burials today, casket or cremation, but due to the history of the site, and its significant size, space of obviously limited.

20180805_113718xxOne of the very interesting features of the site is that is is now the final resting place of the remains of over 900 early settlers of the Toronto area. Their remains were removed from the City’s Potter’s Field and re-interred in the Necropolis, with the original burials having dated to 1851 to 1881. In addition, 263 burials from the City’s first Presbyterian burying grounds at Richmond St. and Sherbourne St., dating between 1818 and 1841, were re-interred at the Necropolis due to expanding construction within the City. It’s so interesting to see this new burial ground exist in Toronto as such a vessel for history, as well as an active part of the burial landscape for modern residents of the City.

Older burial grounds exist within the City, such as St. James Cemetery just to the north of the Necropolis which opened in 1844, but this site remains unique for it’s municipal and openly accessible to all nature.

The Necropolis is located in the northeast corner of Toronto, as it existed in the mid 1800s. While normally I would say this is an unusual location based on the 17th and 18th century data that I have…this site is from the 19th century, and also couldn’t be located to the south of the City due to the lake. In typical cemetery fashion, it is on the outskirts of what would be considered the developed settlement making it the ideal location in the 19th-century mindset to put a lot of graves. Apparently St. James had the same idea, as they are also located on the outskirts of the then-City.

toronto map1860

York County Map, 1860 (Tremaine 1860)

As the city expanded (as continues to do so today), Toronto needed to adapt to both changing lifestyles, and the changing burial ideals of its inhabitants. Hence the relocation and reburial of the Potter’s field and the Presbyterian burying ground.

One of the amazing features of the Necropolis is its immense variability of grave markers. From mausoleum to scrolls, early styled headstones to elaborate modern sculptures, this site literally did have it all! Of course, me being the historical archaeologist that I am, I went in search of the oldest burials at the site. Something I didn’t expect to see, however, was the grave of Jack Layton, former leader of Canada’s NDP party.  I’m glad we got the chance to visit is grave, and reflect on how much different the federal government might be if he were still with us.

However, as amazing and powerful as the history of the site, and the famous individuals who are buried there are, nothing could prepare me for what I’m about to talk about. That’s right, dear reader, the Necropolis has its very own Crematorium Chapel and lych gates!


The Crematory Chapel and gates (photo by author 2018).

The Chapel was constructed in 1872, and was designed by Toronto architect Henry Langley, who is buried within the cemetery. Built in the Gothic revival architectural style from yellow brick, the chapel features distinctly Gothic windows, stained glass, tri-coloured slate roof tiles, and buttresses on the towers. The chapel’s tower is located at the rear of the structure, to create a doorway at the rear of the structure so a funeral procession can easily move from the chapel into the cemetery after the service. It’s a wonderful structure, and is located directly adjacent to the main entrance of the cemetery, dominating the entrance.

The crematorium was constructed in 1933, and is also attached to the rear of the chapel, using similar yellow bricks to match the rest of the original structure. It appears to be only a few feet high from the ground’s surface, because the crematory is partially submerged. During a funeral, the coffin or casket is placed on a raised platform near the alter of the chapel, furnished with a series of brass rollers. The centre of the platform can be lowered into the floor after the service is complete, and the rollers then make it easy to push the cremation machine adjacent room.


The casket platform with brass rollers (photo by author, 2018).

I was really excited to see a cremation chapel in real life (and would love even more to see the downstairs!) because I’ve read about them at other sites, but never had the opportunity to go inside of one. You might remember me mentioning a similar structure at the Union Cemetery in Calgary, AB! Because the cemetery has a crematory on site, the staff of the site are able to offer the cremation directly after a service. This option gives families a more cohesive funeral, where the deceased can be brought to the crematory directly after the service, perhaps while the friends and family are still present, rather than being taken away to an off-site facility which some people may not enjoy the idea of.  It was wonderful to see such a place in person!

Attached to the site of the chapel, and spanning the walking and driving entrances to the cemetery is a large, white, wooden arches / gate. I’m likening it to a lych gate, which came come in many forms, and which these gates were likely styled after. Traditionally, a lych gate (also called a Resurrection gate) was erected at the entrance to a burial ground, and was where the body would be placed after death, prior to the funeral, on its way to the church. Many such gates have benches for people who kept vigil over the dead before the burial, to keep them safe from body snatchers! The gates at the Necropolis do have a small bench in the alcove at the side of the chapel, but I am currently unsure if it was actually built for this purpose, or just in the style of older burial grounds in England which utilized lych gates.


The lych gates at the Toronto Necropolis (photo by author, 2018)

The gates are built in the Gothis Revival style, and are contemporaneous with the chapel. The gable roof is covered by the same tri-chromatic slate tiles to match the adjacent roofs, and the gates are finished with ornate carved verge boards and decorative wood work throughout. It is in excellent condition, and has clearly been lovingly restored. Even if cemeteries aren’t your thing (hi, how did you find this blog otherwise??), if you’re in the area and have a chance to visit just for the gates, it’s definitely worthwhile. They are very impressive!

Of course, this post only scratches the surface of the amazing history that the Toronto Necropolis has to offer. Many important citizens of Toronto are buried at the site, and have extremely impressive monuments from the last 200 years (of course that I didn’t include in my blog post, you’ll just have to go see them in person!). Modern cremation burials with small monuments or flat markers are set in amidst the historic burials, and the park atmosphere throughout the entire site makes it a wonderful place for a stroll, with trees to keep you cool during the hot summer afternoons. (seriously, why is SW Ontario so hot??). It was wonderful to wander around and see the graves, and I definitely would like to go back to check out the age ranges for a particular style of monument I saw throughout the cemetery!

Thanks for reading!

ps. If anyone who works at the Necropolis is reading this, please know that the vines growing on the front of the chapel are degrading the bricks and lime mortar. You should cut them at the base so they can die & then scrape them gently off the face of the building. It will help preserve the building for many more years! 🙂


Work Cited:

Tremaine, George. 1860. County York, Canada West. Available online: 

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

5 thoughts on “Curious Canadian Cemeteries: The Toronto Necropolis

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of August 12, 2018 | Unwritten Histories

  2. I would like to say thank you so much for sharing your blog and I am very happy reading your article.


  3. Toronto Branch of the OGS transcribed the Necropolis gravemarkers and published those transcriptions some years ago.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s