If you’ve been around this website for more than a minute or two, you’ll have noticed that I’m really interested in what settlers did with their dead during the winter. I’ve written about dead houses several times on this blog, talked about them at Death Salon Boston 2018, am currently working on a paper on winter corpse disposal in colonial North America, and shout about them to anyone who listens!
A really interesting form of dead house is the octagonal structures that can be found in Ontario. As far as I know so far, these seven surviving examples (if anyone has one not listed in this post, please let me know!) are the only octagonal dead houses in the province, if not North America. The style was extremely localized to Toronto, and north of the City around Yonge Street.
Originally I read that there were five known octagonal dead houses in Ontario, but I was only able to locate four of them. Well friends, the 5th…6th and 7th, are listed below!
The known octagonal dead houses in Ontario are as follows:
- St. Michael’s Dead House, Toronto. 1855
- Richmond Hill Presbyterian Church Cemetery Dead House. 1863
- Aurora Cemetery Dead House, Aurora. 1868
- King City Cemetery Dead House, King City. 1887
- Queensville Cemetery Dead House, Queensville. ???
- Laurel Hill Cemetery Dead House, Bolton. 1894
- Kettleby Cemetery Dead House, Kettleby. 1899
That’s right folks, the 5th dead house has been identified! I wish I could take credit for that, but my friend Alexis (@AlexisDunlop on twitter) saw it out in the wild and messaged me about it a few months ago! (I know, it’s taken forever for me to write about it!). Numbers 6 and 7 were mentioned on the blog ‘Camera on King’ (Wallace 2012), to whom I am forever grateful for their wonderful photos and post on the topic!
Lets start with the Queensville example. This dead house is the same as the others in that it is octagonal with a steep octagonal roof…but it has several unique features! Firstly, the roof is punctuated by four gables…lets call them cross cross-centre gables, shall we? The structure is brick, and appears to be all stretcher-bond, and each corner of the structure has a pilasters, or faux-columns, also constructed from brick. The doorway is not a pointed arch, but rather a segmental arch with voussoir above. Isn’t it lovely??
I recently contacted the cemetery management to ask about any additional information they may have about this structure, namely who built it and when, and will update this post when that information comes available. I’ll continue my research in the mean time, and if any of you lovely readers know anything, drop me a comment or email!
Next, and this is based on chronological order that I am aware of, is the is the Laurel Hill Cemetery Dead House in Bolton, ON. This structure was built in 1894 from red brick, making it stand out from the other yellow-brick examples quite dramatically! Still with the octagonal roof and white, vented cupola with a shingle roof, this dead house sports a flat-head door frame rather than the classic pointed-arch. I would still say that this structure reflects the Gothic Revival style due to other elements, but perhaps with some classical influence, due to the brick pilasters and dentition below the eaves. This dead house was in use from construction until the 1920s, when it is said that the local caretaker of the cemetery, George Norton, figured out how to heat the ground with iron and thus rendered winter burials possible (Headwaters Inspired 2019).
The Kettleby Dead House might be my new favourite, friends. Just look at that beautiful fieldstone wonder! This dead house displays some classic Gothic Revival style, such as the pointed arch door frame, and again, we see pilasters (the Inventory says buttresses, but they are very minor…), only made from stone this time. The cupola on this dead house is boarded up and white, with a metal weather vane on top (excellent touch!). Constructed in 1899, it is also the latest example of an octagonal dead house we have seen in the province so far! It is also an inventoried heritage structure on the Village of Kettleby Inventory of Buildings.
The building is clearly being well cared for, as fresh pointing is visible between the coursed fieldstones, and limestone on either side of the doorway reads “AD” and “1899”. The Inventory mentions that the entire cemetery is also a heritage asset to the community, located on part of Lot 28 Concession IV West Half. The property was purchased by the Kettleby Cemetery Company in 1890, and the earliest buries were relocated to the site from an older local cemetery. They state that the dead house was based on the Richmond Hill example (1863, pictured at the top of this post). The Inventory also indicates that there are only four octagonal dead houses that survive today in Ontario, but we now know this isn’t true! Yay!
If you look at the map above, you will notice that the structures are roughly aligned with Yonge Street, with St. Michael’s being the farthest south and Queensville to the north. This, coupled with the earliest known date being St. Michael’s Dead House in Toronto, built in 1855, suggests that the stylistic popularity of the structure radiated north from the Toronto.
(if you would like a .kml file of the exact locations of the dead houses, please drop me a comment or email and I would be happy to send it over!)
If any of you go on a road trip and visit one or more of these excellent historic structures, tag me in the photos on twitter or instagram, I’d love to see them!
As always, thanks for reading!
Headwaters Inspired. 2019. Laurel Hill Cemetery ‘Dead’ House c. 1894 – 389 Centennial Drive, Bolton. Headwaters Inspired. Available online: https://headwatersinspired.ca/business/laurel-hill-cemetery-dead-house-c-1894-389-centennial-drive-bolton/
Village of Kettleby Inventory of Buildings. 2007. Prepared by Philip H. Carter, Architect. Available online: http://www.king.ca/Government/Departments/Planning/Documents/Village%20of%20Kettleby%20Inventory%20of%20Buildings.pdf
Wallace, Barry. 2012. Octagonal Dead Houses in King. Camera on King. Available online: http://cameraonking.blogspot.com/2012/02/octagonal-deadhouses-in-king.html