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City of the Dead

The Necropolis, in Cabbagetown across from Riverdale Farm, is one of Toronto's oldest and most interesting cemeteries. A beautiful, peaceful spot perched on a hillside leading down to the Don RIver, the land was purchased in 1855 to serve as a non-denominational burial ground for the dead of the city of York. It replaced Potter's Field, located at the north west corner of today's Yonge and Bloor. When Potter's Field closed, the remains of 984 people were transferred to the Necropolis, where they rest in an area dedicated to "the Pioneers."

The chapel and its matching office building were designed and built in 1872 by Henry Langley, one of Toronto's foremost architects of Gothic Revival churches. He was also responsible for, amongst other churches, parts of St Michael's and St James' cathedrals, and the building that is now Metropolitan United Church.

Along with its sister cemetery, Mount Pleasant, the Necropolis houses the graves of many of Toronto's most distinguished citizens, including Jack Layton, the late leader of the Opposition in Canada's parliament, who died in 2011. The cemetery was a special place to him, and he used to lead walking tours there, dressed as William Lyon Mackenzie, who is also buried in the Necropolis. When Jack died, his widow, Olivia Chow, asked if he could be buried there. Told there was no more room, she persisted, and eventually was told that a tree had fallen and Jack could be buried where it had stood. On his headstone is a bust of Jack, sculpted by Olivia, and the quote from his final letter to Canadians: "So, my friends, let us be loving, hopeful, and optimistic and together we can change the world."

In addition to Mackenzie, who is commemorated on a wall at the north end of the cemetery, the bodies of the only two men hanged for fighting in his 1837 rebellion were moved here too. Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews are remembered on the "Patriots of 1837 Memorial."

Thornton Blackburn, founder of the city's first cab company, was born into slavery in the US, but ended his life as a respected citizen of York and is buried in the Necropolis. Also here is the first black surgeon to be born in Canada, Dr Anderson Ruffin Abbott, who served with the Union Army in the American Civil War. He attended President Lincoln on his death bed, and Mrs Lincoln later gave him the president's plaid shawl, worn at his 1861 inauguration. Journalists John Ross Robertson and George Brown, and rower Ned Hanlan (namesake of the island's Hanlan's Point), rest here too.

Among the headstones in memory of Toronto's early residents, many now eroded and unreadable, are some extremely touching monuments, including the memorial to the five young daughters of the Ward family, drowned in a sailing accident in 1862. They were out with their 18 year old brother William, off the island that bears their family name, when the boat capsized. He was unable to save his sisters, but over the rest of his life, he saved 160 people in lake rescues.

Another monument, to the Horsman family, commemorates Hannah, who died in childbirth, and her infant children, Albert and Georgeina "Birdie," who died at 17 months of age. There are train accidents, cholera epidemics, and people "felled" by trees, alongside some very long-lived people. The Reverend Robert Dowie Mackay died aged 91 of a haemorrhage in 1899. In his memoir, Mackay remembered hiding in the rocks as a little boy in Scotland, looking out for Napoleon's soldiers when the General was on the rampage in Europe.

A record of our city's early history, the Necropolis nestles under beautiful old growth trees, including maples and red oaks. All Toronto's fifty-two cemeteries are places of peace and contemplation, but this one is definitely special.

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