Monday, November 30, 2009

Mount Pleasant Cemetery - Saturday November 28th, 3:00 pm

Mount Pleasant Cemetery is split into two halves, bordered by Bayview Avenue to the east, Yonge Street to the west, and divided by Mt. Pleasant Road. I visited the eastern half of the cemetery. The weather is increasingly cold, but the sunlight is bright. After a few minutes walk into the cemetery, the hum of cars on Mt. Pleasant Road is virtually the only noise you can hear. Out of respect for visiting families, the noise level is very low here. The road into the cemetery forks just past the entrance, curving north and south toward other plots of graves. Graves are marked by headstones and flat stone markers, and many graves have flowers, wreaths, photos and candles placed in front of them. There are large trees of many different species throughout the cemetery, and flower beds which are empty at this time of year. Many of the older trees have metal plaques at their bases which identify the tree’s species (in elementary school my class came here on field trips to collect leaves from these trees).

About a hundred metres east into the cemetery is an administrative building. Behind this are a cremation garden and a mausoleum. A few hundred metres south is a visitor’s centre and funeral home that is still under construction. In front of this is a heritage seed garden. A sign at the edge of the garden describes it as a “living gene bank” designed to “preserve our horticultural diversity for future generations”. The garden was created through a joint initiative by the cemetery and Seeds of Diversity Canada and contains organically grown rare plant species. Several people can be seen jogging and cycling, and there are many squirrels eating and preparing for winter. Wildlife is prominent - on other visits I have seen rabbits, foxes, skunks, and raccoons. There is one maintenance truck driving back and forth, and four or five parked cars. There is one family leaving the mausoleum.

Walking into the cemetery, the first thing I noticed was the lack of walking paths, trails, or any type of sidewalk. I have relatives buried here and my family lives well within walking distance, but we always visit by car. I had never really questioned this until now. The cemetery accommodates cars much better than it does pedestrians, although joggers, cyclists and people going for walks seem to enjoy it as well. It is relatively tranquil and safe, has well-maintained roads and is a beautiful example of nature in midtown Toronto. However, these activities are informal, and secondary to the cemetery’s main purpose – a burial place where families come to commemorate their friends and relatives. The cemetery is easily accessible by TTC, but with no walking paths or sidewalks, visiting on foot can be tricky, especially in winter and for elderly visitors. This may be a way of discouraging joggers, but it also limits travel options for people visiting a loved one’s grave.

The roads that wind throughout the cemetery act as a guide, scripting one’s visit. Upon entering the cemetery, the main road - which is lined with meticulous flower beds – leads you to a large stone monument of a crucifix. As you continue along this road, you come across several other impressive monuments, such as a life size angel, before reaching the administration office/welcome centre. The graves closest to the entrance are the oldest; many are from the 1920s. The headstones belong almost entirely to Anglo-Saxon men, whose relatives are listed below them. The relative wealth of the people buried here is reflected in the large, elaborate headstones that are prominent in this section of the cemetery (former Prime Minister Mackenzie King is buried here). These types of graves and their position along the main road lend the cemetery an atmosphere of exclusivity and privilege. This “official route” through the cemetery is often overlapped with more personal ones. I unconsciously headed in the direction of my grandfather’s grave, ignoring the set or “scripted” route.

In “Domesticating Urban Space”, Dolores Hayden discusses the Victorian concept of public and private spheres. She lists ways in which urban spaces can be redesigned to better accommodate families, particularly children and the elderly. Hayden’s analysis of both urban accessibility and urban domesticity relate to Mount Pleasant Cemetery. The cemetery, although public, is a site of mourning, one of the most private acts humans engage in. This paradox can create tension, which is reflected in the cemetery’s design. The lack of pathways between grave plots makes visiting the cemetery difficult for the elderly and for families with strollers. Although the roads are built to accommodate funeral processions of cars, very few elements of the cemetery are designed with the everyday mourner in mind. For people who visit here frequently, the cemetery is the “home” of their deceased family and friends, not an impersonal public space. The cemetery understandably cannot cater to joggers or people using the grounds for non-mourning activities. However, for visitors arriving by bike, public transit, on foot, or with strollers, the cemetery does little to assist.

In many ways, a cemetery is the ultimate human/nature relationship. A grave is a space designated for the human body to decompose and literally become part of the earth. This relationship is complex and somewhat paradoxical. Many of the elements that make up a cemetery are designed to ease grief by distracting from death and obscuring natural processes. For example, the practice of embalming delays post-mortem decay. One very obvious example is the dichotomy between natural and artificial plants, and the purposes of each. Floral tributes, both real and fake, inspire questions about why humans use plants to commemorate their dead. Historically, strong smelling flowers like lilies were used to mask the scent of decomposition. Now, they are a popular way to pay one’s respects to the deceased. Many graves are adorned with wreaths and potted plants. More often than not, these are artificial. These arrangements are practical – they do not require care or watering, and can be left alone for months between visits. Like embalming, they are a way of interrupting the natural process of decay.

These plants look gaudy in comparison with actual nature, which abounds in the cemetery. The heritage seed garden, for example, could be analyzed as an attempt to interrupt loss, by preserving plant species and ensuring their future. Some of the plaques found at the base of trees bear a person’s name in memoriam. The act of using a tree as a memorial is significant. Trees are often thought of as timeless and permanent, and the tree is a universal symbol of life and of family. In naming a tree after a person, it is as if the tree can act as a living acknowledgement of the memory of that person. Unscripted examples of nature are also plentiful. A variety of animals have made the cemetery their home. Many families do plant living flowers and shrubs next to graves.

Although death is the reason cemeteries exist, it is life that dominates. I have always found this cemetery to be full of beautiful plants and animals, and in this sense it is more of a celebration of the circle of life than a symbol of death. In Mount Pleasant cemetery, death, life, order and nature, all coexist.