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TORONTO NECROPOLIS:

SOCIAL STRATIFICATION WITHIN THE CITY OF THE DEAD

 

Background and Introduction

 

            Located on the upper east side of downtown Toronto in an area affectionately called “Old Town Toronto”, Toronto Necropolis is one of the city’s oldest and most historic sites.  Established in 1850, Necropolis is the earliest (and still functional) recognized non-denominational cemeteries and remains a beautiful testament to Toronto’s multicultural society (5).  Prominent residents of Necropolis include Toronto’s first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie, journalist George Brown (and co-founder of the Globe and Mail), and championship rower Ned Hanlan (5).  Toronto Necropolis boasts its share of beautiful Victorian-style architecture and houses over 50,000 residents and counting.  Gorgeous stained-glass windows surround the chapel located at the entrance on Winchester Street, located adjacent to a large Victorian archway.  Situated along the Don River and Don Valley Parkway and located in between Winchester and Gerrard streets, Toronto Necropolis provides a picturesque environment for its mourners and commoners alike.

            From its initial conception to the present day, Toronto Necropolis has undergone significant changes.  These changes are in part, a reflection of the socio-cultural development that the urban metropolis of Toronto has been subjected to for the past 150 years.  Changes that take place within the living world are also reflected in mortuary behavior, which implies that a continued understanding of prehistoric mortuary behaviors (like that of the ancient Egyptians and Mesoamerican cultures), allow archaeologists to apply their knowledge in the comprehension of modern day burial practices (6).  Cemeteries have evolved to the point where they have been considered cities within cities.  Toronto Necropolis is no exception.

            The hypothesized origins of complex state-level societies are vast in amount, as anthropologists continue to explain how and why large urban centers came about.  But this transition from early hunter-gatherer societies to the modern, overpopulated metropolis is clearly evident, and the underlying cultural and ideological values that persist within these cities are also dynamic in nature and change with time as well.  Therefore, cemeteries can be seen as a "material expression of the systemic history of the community" (3).  Headstones and various grave goods have matured to a point where they are considered pertinent examples of individuality and extravagance, and serves as an indicator of varying socio-cultural values of a period in time and how they change over time.  They also provide insight into the cultural history within early communities.  Cemeteries have become modified to accommodate the specific values, perceptions and the social implications that exist within a characteristic society. 

            Much like most things on earth, cemeteries and traditional mortuary behaviors have changed and progressed through time.  Burials during the medieval times were usually anonymous and no administrative records were kept.  By the eighteenth century, religion started to play a dominant role in that cemeteries were usually situated alongside a church or religious center (Latta, 2003).  “Post death admittance” to these cemeteries where usually granted based on ones’ identity and/or belonging to a specific familial faction or religious group.  By the mid 1800s, there became a growing awareness of the “awkwardness” of having cemeteries located within urban centers.  A public concern of possible infectious diseases originating from a nearby cemetery led to a demand for a physical, geographical separation between the urban centers and cemeteries.  The only plausible solution was for cemeteries to be relocated to rural environments, where contamination and disease transmission were at a minimum.  This outgrowth of rural relocation was soon accompanied by the advent of cemetery associations, where burial plots were available for purchase and where some level of organization was established (Latta, 2003).  The latter half of the nineteenth century saw the transition of the traditional cemetery to a more scenic and inviting setting.  These new cemeteries were made more appealing as they were transformed into garden-like parks, where commoners were able to enjoy the local scenery, and were not restricted to mourners any longer.  Architecture also came into play as buildings and pathways were constructed to make the cemetery more accessible.  It showcased the beautiful unification of manmade technology within a natural, environmental backdrop.  This ultimately led to the arrival of modern day cemeteries, whose greenery and pleasant atmosphere distracts the usual taboo feeling of death, and allows people to enjoy their immediate surroundings, while being able to pay their respects.    

The purpose of this study is to examine specific features of Toronto Necropolis within a socio-cultural context, taking into account various aspects as it relates to changing ideologies that existed in the past.  A meticulous examination of two separate sections of the cemetery has been completed, from which the proceeding data has been provided.