Montreal’s Victorian Cemetery

In the years before the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish cemeteries were established on the mountain, smaller graveyards were located on what is now Square Victoria, Complex Guy Favreau and Dorchester Square. Eventually in the nineteenth century social and demographic changes meant that these dark and insalubrious spaces needed to be cleaned up: shallow and stacked graves resulted in bones and skulls that kept popping out the of the earth, the ooze of decaying bodies made it difficult to walk the grounds and the smell coupled with new ideas about air-born diseases kept mourners at bay.

From here, we see the literal move from religious graveyards to more secular cemeteries.

As people’s (ie. the upper class) ideas about death and the afterlife changed, new conceptions of “death” spaces changed as well. Respectable men in society desired spaces where their living legacy could find a parallel in their eternal resting places. For the Protestants, the usual suspects (McCord et al. ) decided to take matters into their own hands and established the Mount Royal Cemetery, which opened its gates in 1852.

mt royal cemetary
Mount Royal Cemetery map (source: Respectable Burials by Brian Young)

The move toward “rural” cemeteries began with Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery in 1801 and on this side of the Atlantic with Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery. Frederick Law Olmsted was originally approached to design the Mount Royal Cemetery’s landscape and though he declined, his philosophy, ubiquitous in other North American mid-1800s city planning projects, prevailed.

The cemetery can be seen as a public museum of ideas and events.  The rich sought to enshrine their social position via lasting funeral monuments: the Molson family’s mausoleum towers over the rest; the Allan family’s gated plot holds the remains of two daughters who perished when the RMS Lusitania was sunk by German fire. The unmarked pauper graves and the shocking number of children’s graves during times of epidemic also tell part of the story of Montreal’s past.

mccord museum
(source: McCord Museum)

The choice of words on tombstone inscriptions display prevailing ideas about gender, status and the afterlife. And the landscape itself, the sinewy roads, the hilltop views, the carefully manicured grounds and flora create a suburban oasis where the wealthy could stroll and contemplate. Public places were intimately linked with values: the Mount Royal Cemetery unlike it’s decrepit predecessors, was a morally edifying place and respectable enough for women to enjoy on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Eventually Victorian ideas about death would be shaken by the Great War. If sex was taboo and death romanticized, it’s obvious that today the opposite is true.

And yet, the Mount Royal Cemetery continues to be a beautiful and relaxing space visited by joggers, mourners and the curious. Themed walking tours are organized year round while Repercussion Theatre hold one of its most popular Shakespeare in the Park productions on its grounds.

These days, we can make diamonds out the the dead and we are nonplussed when Hunter S. Thompson’s ashes get shot out of a cannon. Yet there is something to be said about being able to gather our thoughts and visit a specific place where the public and private rituals of death and the beauty of carefully crafted nature live on.

* Featured image by Sarah Ring

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