The Shaping & Structuring of Space: Mount Pleasant Cemetery

CW: Cemeteries


Built in 1876, the Mount Pleasant Cemetery (operated by Mount Pleasant Group of Cemeteries) is now the largest cemetery in Toronto covering 205 acres between Yonge Street and Bayview Avenue, just north of St. Clair Avenue. It includes walking paths, fountains, gardens, and rare trees and flowers as well as distinct mausoleums and statues. It now commemorates the lives of over 180 000 people.[1] In the nineteenth century, it emerged as one of the few cemeteries (in what is now Toronto) available to all citizens regardless of religion or burial preferences. Since 2000, it has been a designated National Historic Site of Canada. Today, it continues to be a non-denominational cemetery and a space open to the public.

Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Credit: India Taylor, “More Than Just a Cemetery: Exploring Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery,” Reader’s Digest, October 6, 2020.

Prior to 1826, the majority of the cemeteries in Toronto (then the town of York) were for adherents to the Roman Catholic Church or the Church of England, and those of other denominations had to be buried outside of the city or, in some cases, outside of the province.[2] In 1826, the Province of Upper Canada issued An act to authorize certain persons therein named, and their successors, to hold certain lands for the purpose therein, which designated a portion of farmlands in York “for the purpose of a general or burying ground, as well for strangers as for the inhabitants of the town, of whatever sect or denomination they may be.”[3] This act resulted in the creation of Potter’s Field cemetery at what is now Bay and Bloor. Alongside the growth of Yorkville, Potter’s Field was closed, and, in 1855, the Necropolis cemetery opened on the “west bank of the Don River at the end of Winchester Street.”[4] However, for the same reasons, the Necropolis closed in 1872, and, in 1873, 200 acres were purchased on Yonge Street for $20 000.[5] On 4 November 1876, the Mount Pleasant Cemetery opened to continue the openness of its predecessors and has remained open since.[6]

Left: Mount Auburn Cemetery (Massachussets). Credit: Mount Auburn Cemetery. Right: Mount Pleasant Cemetery (Toronto). Credit: David Rider, “Mount Pleasant Cemetery Operator Challenging Ruling that Forces More Oversight,” Toronto Star, November 13, 2019.

In the 1870s, German-born Henry Engelhardt was responsible for designing and developing the Mount Pleasant Cemetery. He drew largely from Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery (see above) as well as cemeteries and gardens in western Europe.[7] Although at the time Canada had stone quarries, the quarries predominantly produced paving blocks, and the majority of the early granite monuments had to be imported from Scotland and Northern Ireland.[8] The stones were brought across the ocean, up the river, transported across land to the location of the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, and structured by hand.

Left: Statue to Steve Stavro, located at east entrance off Mount Pleasant Road. Right: Memorial Monument for Ontario Chinese Ancestors. Credit: Catherine Ramey (author).

The Mount Pleasant Cemetery was developed from west to east, which is visible in the graves and architecture on each side of Mount Pleasant Road. Between Yonge and Mount Pleasant, the graves are much older and more deteriorated while the section between Mount Pleasant and Bayview has graves and memorials in pristine condition. By the 1920s and 1930s, the granite imports from Europe stopped as the granite industry in Canada improved, which allowed for a “more standardized look of these monuments” just west of Mount Pleasant Road.[9]

Map of Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Credit: Mount Pleasant Group. Also visit CanadaConstructed’s “My Map” to follow our geographic journey.

The styles of the graves and monuments themselves change as one moves from the west to the east sides of the cemetery: near Yonge Street are mainly Victorian styles (with heavy bases and few sculptures); and closer to Bayview are mainly Gothic styles (more floral and religious ornamentation).[10] Additionally, with increasing demand in the twentieth century, Mount Pleasant Cemetery began offering flat in-ground markers at lower costs as well as options for commemorating cremated remains (for example, the Scattering Garden).[11]

Scattering Garden. Credit: frontal view by Catherine Ramey (author) and others from Mount Pleasant Group.

The original landscaping goal of the cemetery was “to provide an arboretum for the enjoyment of the public,” including rare trees and shrubs from across the world.[12] Most trees have signs with identification. The Mount Pleasant Group currently offers an online guide to The Trees of Mount Pleasant Cemetery, which includes the names, descriptions, and locations of “a sampling” of the trees in the cemetery.[13]

Landscape and trees at Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Credit: Catherine Ramey (author).

Mount Pleasant Cemetery continues to be a non-denominational cemetery. It is open and accessible to the public with its winding roads and paths for walking, jogging, biking, and driving.[14] Over the years, the space has been shaped and structured based on new interests and architectural styles, and you can revisit Toronto’s architectural history simply by walking along the paths of Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

Mount Pleasant Cemetery, west entrance off Yonge Street. Credit: Catherine Ramey (author).

– Catherine Ramey


[1] Mike Filey, Mount Pleasant Cemetery: An Illustrated Guide (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 199), 12.

[2] Filey, Mount Pleasant Cemetery, 14.

[3] An act to authorize certain persons therein named, and their successors, to hold certain lands for the purpose therein. Acts of U.C. 7 Geo. IV, c. 21.

[4] Filey, Mount Pleasant Cemetery, 15.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 8, 15-16.

[7] Ibid, 16.

[8] Filey 18.

[9] Ibid, 20.

[10] Ibid, 18-21.

[11] Ibid, 21-22.

[12] Ibid, 26.

[13] Mount Pleasant Group, The Trees of Mount Pleasant Cemetery, https://www.mountpleasantgroup.com/flipbook/Brochures/Arboretum_Guide/mobile/index.html#p=6.

[14] For more on visiting the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, visit https://www.mountpleasantgroup.com/en-CA.aspx.

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