The Art and Architecture of Canadian Cemeteries
n the little Dutch Church Burial Ground in Halifax are the paired tombstones of Philip J. Holland (d.1837) and Sarah Ann Holland (d.1842). Though damaged, the tops of the stone slabs
preserve elements of their original ornament in the form of scrolls with paterae and low-relief carvings of
covered, fluted urns. The urn motif, slightly different in each of the two examples, is more than a reflection of traditional, classically inspired iconography; it can be related as well to forms seen in silver, ceramics, etchings, and other media of the late 1700s to early 1800s. These examples are a reminder of age-old connections between cemetery monuments and the applied arts, and constitute an archetype of churchyard burial grounds that had existed for centuries in Europe and which inspired the establishment of similar spaces in North America.
Representing different denominations, different faiths, and different immigrant groups, these cemeteries contributed enormously to the richness of Canada’s history and cultural heritage. The rapid growth and expansion of cities on both sides of the Atlantic that occurred during the Industrial Revolution led to increasingly severe problems of overcrowding, and a growing concern about the health risks posed by existing cemeteries within congested urban areas. In England, severe cholera outbreaks in the mid-1800s accelerated the foundation of Britain’s first large cemeteries deliberately situated in landscaped parklands away
from city centres and managed by corporations.
The basic models for the new large-scale English and Continental European cemeteries were followed in North America, usually featuring a main entrance, often in Gothic Revival style, with a porter’s lodge and chapel. The pioneer example in the United States was Mount Auburn cemetery in Massachusetts, founded in 1831, and designed as a landscaped park with a deliberately asymmetrical plan, influenced by English landscape forms.
The stylistic eclecticism of the 1800s extended to cemeteries, and included the same “battle of the styles” between Classicism and Gothic that had occurred in architecture. The influence of other architectural styles and their ornament followed similar paths in cemetery art as in architecture, and included everything from definable forms, including Egyptian, Romanesque, Richardsonian, Romanesque, to virtually indefinable eclecticism. Mortuary chapels and mausoleums also included examples of contemporary stained glass to complement their other manifestations of applied art, which included ceramic tiles for floors, wood carving for chapel pews, ironwork for hinges and other door fittings, as well as works in brass and bronze. In various forms, the extensive vocabulary of Victorian visual art found its place and expression in the new cemeteries of the Victorian era.
A survey of what were then the new garden cemeteries, planned in ever greater number as the population of Canadian cities expanded, reveals extraordinarily quick-paced advances in the mastery of both style and technique. Shifts from urban construction in wood and brick to stone were accompanied by the rapid growth of ornamental stone carving and by the greater degree of mastery over the stylistic revivals of the Victorian era. In this respect, cemeteries continued to be what they have always been—reflections of the societies that brought them into being, and a microcosm of the shape and social structure of the Victorian city.
Since permanence in monuments is desired for obvious reasons, granite, where available, was preferable to softer materials such as limestone or sandstone. Simple, solid stereometric forms— solid cylinder, sphere, cube, pyramid—occur in every imaginable shape, size, and context. A favoured form of solid geometric shape was the obelisk, inspired by Egyptian prototypes and symbolic of eternity. From the vocabulary of Classical art came such symbols of human mortality as broken columns, funerary urns, and statuary or reliefs depicting mourning figures and weeping angels. The range of types and subjects is encyclopedic.
In such fields as stained glass, the Victorian cemetery combined scrupulous historic references with technical innovation. An example of such innovation is provided by the development of memorials that look like stone, but are in fact composed of what came to be known as “white bronze” (zinc). Cheaper than bronze, and easier to mould and cast, zinc came into use for cemetery monuments by the 1870s. Examples of zinc monuments can be seen in numerous cemeteries across Canada. A particularly impressive example is the Croft memorial of 1886 in the Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria, B.C., a tapered obelisk with pyramidal top, with pendants, draperies, and stylized floral ornament cast in relief. From a distance, the monument is easily mistaken for stone.
Among Canada’s most distinguished examples of what has come to be known as the “garden cemetery” are the Mount Royal and Notre-Damedes- Neiges cemeteries of Montreal. As elsewhere, they were the successors to early parish cemeteries closed owing to overcrowding and potential health risks. Designs for the Mount Royal Cemetery grounds began in 1852 with the work of the Philadelphia architectural firm of Sydney & Neff. Among Mount Royal’s stellar architectural features is its majestic main gate, a masterpiece of Gothic Revival design.
The Roman Catholic cemetery of Notre-Damedes- Neiges, which adjoins Mount Royal, dates back to 1854. Some features of the cemetery, such as rows of hillside family mausoleums, recall the great cemeteries of Paris, such as Père Lachaise. Notre- Dame-des-Neiges is particularly rich in the quality of the sculptural work of many of its monuments, among them the Classical Revival memorial to Charles-Théodore Viau (1843-1898) with sculptural work by Louis-Philippe Hébert (1850-1917).
In Toronto, the chapel of St James Cemetery, designed in 1858 in an impressive Gothic Revival style, included leaded stained-glass work typical of the 1860s. Early monuments in the cemetery included headstones in Gothic style, and added to the usual mix of Gothic and Classical forms and decoration was the extraordinary Egyptian Revival family mausoleum in which Sir Casimir Gzowski was buried in 1898.
The Toronto Necropolis, established in 1850, includes the usual mix of memorials featuring draped urns, broken columns, willow trees, floral motifs, obelisks, and other established forms associated with human mortality, but its salient feature is its remarkable Gothic Revival brick chapel and porter’s lodge, dating from 1872, placed on either side of a triple-arched wooden gate. The interior includes a tour-de-force timber ceiling, wood panelling, and stained glass.
Farther north is Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery, opened in 1876. An evolving example of the 19th-century garden cemetery, Mount Pleasant’s memorials begin with the eclecticism of the 1800s. The earlier mausoleums include such hillside structures near the main entrance as the Classical Revival James French mausoleum of circa 1894 with its quasi-Greek entrance, the whole structure crowned by a massive festooned urn and twin spheres.
The primary inspiration for Mount Pleasant Cemetery’s freestanding mausoleums derives from Classical forms. The outstanding example is provided by the Eaton Mausoleum, commissioned in 1907, modeled after the famous Maison Carrée of 16 BC at Nîmes, regarded as the best preserved of any surviving Roman temple. The largest of the Classical Revival structures in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, however, is the combined mausoleum, crematorium, and chapel of 1917-1920, one of the masterpieces of the Toronto architectural firm of Darling & Pearson. Among the freestanding mausoleums, the Richardsonian Romanesque form of the Massey mausoleum remains unique. Built in 1891, the rough-cut stonework, rounded arches, stylized carving on capitals, and above all the structure’s remarkable asymmetry reflect generic aspects of buildings influenced by Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886).
In every province and region of Canada, we find cemeteries with grounds and monuments linking them with a wide spectrum of the visual arts, with the fields of architecture and the applied arts in many manifestations, permutations, and combinations. Such cemeteries represent one of the most significant areas of this nation’s cultural, historic, and artistic heritage.
K. Corey Keeble is a curator in the Royal Ontario Museum’s Department of world Cultures. He is a well-known lecturer and tour guide with a passion for Canadian architecture of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
K. Corey Keeble