It was a cool summer night in Annapolis Royal, NS. A group of people 50-strong walked down the street in twos and threes, each carrying a lantern. The procession wound their way through a moonlit park, stopping in front of a weathered tombstone. The year was 2019, and these people were about to learn the history of Canada’s oldest English cemetery. I was among that group. So were my parents, my sister, and even my grandparents. This candlelit cemetery tour was the only reason the six of us were in this corner of Nova Scotia to begin with. No, we didn’t have any ancestors buried here- we just liked to explore cemeteries.
If you’re interested in history, cemeteries are one of the best places to visit. Most are accessible to the public, and there’s usually at least one in every town. There, amidst the well-trodden lawns and shaded trees, lie some of the earliest settlers to the area. Viewing their gravestones can tell you a lot about their lives, loves, and past-times. Whether they were rich or impoverished, an immigrant or a settler. If their families experienced tragedy, or if a spouse chose to remarry. Every detail, from the location of their grave to the religious passages they chose to have inscribed there, shed light on the lives of those who came before us. More recent graves display the love the living still have for their friends and family. A photograph in a Ziploc bag, drooping flowers, and hand-painted rocks that say “Grandma” serve as evidence that these lives have been anything if forgotten. This is why I like visiting cemeteries. Sometimes, I’ll say the names of the older graves as I pass them by, insuring that these people, too, are not forgotten by time. On other occasions, I’ll have little conversations with my relatives about what’s been going on in my life. My sister does it too- just last week, she was explaining to the entire cemetery what a phone was and how to use it.
(Me and my sister visiting the Old Burying Ground in Halifax.)
Beyond the regular cemeteries that my family and I visit, we try to make a point of visiting new cemeteries when we can. That’s how we ended up on the Annapolis Royal tour two years ago, and got to see the graves of Titanic victims in Halifax the year before that. Even just a few days ago, my Dad and I ended up exploring a cemetery in Peterborough. The next cemetery visit I’d like to make is to the Necropolis Cemetery in Toronto. The reason why is because of two incredible non-fiction books that I’ve just finished reading: The Toronto Book of the Dead and The Toronto Book of Love.
The Toronto Book of the Dead and the Toronto Book of Love by Adam Bunch:
(Photo Credit: Amazon.ca)
After people die, we start to think of them as bodies instead of humans like ourselves. It’s almost as if the longer they’re in the ground, the less we remember that they lived, loved, and dreamed like we do. We build our houses on land that they used to own, drive on the streets that they helped to build. They may have stopped breathing a long time ago, but our towns and cities truly belong to the dead. That idea is the guiding principle for the Toronto Book of the Dead and the Toronto Book of Love by author Adam Bunch. Tracing the history of the land that we call Toronto all the way back to the days when Indigenous people laid claim to it, Adam Bunch masterfully weaves together stories of passionate love and dreadful death with the city’s gradual development into the metropolis it is today.
Not only do these books tell human stories, but they also secretly teach you lessons about Canadian history. Before I read them, I couldn’t tell you anything about who John Graves Simcoe was or how Upper Canada fought for democracy. Now, I can explain both and still have time to show off my newfound knowledge about the life of Sir Isaac Brock. The best history books are the ones where you don’t even realize you’re learning, and the Toronto Book of the Dead and the Toronto Book of Love rank right up there with them.
For those of you interested in stories of murder, a botched revolution, disease outbreaks, duels, and hangings, the Toronto Book of the Dead will be right up your alley. If the subject of death isn’t for you, perhaps you’ll prefer the Toronto Book of Love instead. Inside it, you’ll find stories of scandalous affairs, romances between people of the same sex at a time when their being together was illegal, and learn about the love lives of people like Tom Longboat and Billy Bishop. Regardless of which book you choose, reading either the Toronto Book of Love or the Toronto Book of the Dead will be a decision you will not regret. The stories are rich, well-researched, and inclusive (no exclusion of Indigenous people, the LGBTQ+ community, or people of colour here!) without being too long. Even those of you who don’t live anywhere near Toronto will be drawn in by the stories in these books. Seriously, I have nothing but praise for either one of them.
Circling back to the beginning of the post, I mentioned that I wanted to visit Toronto’s Necropolis Cemetery, which is home to a large number of the prominent Torontonians who were featured in the Toronto Book of the Dead and the Toronto Book of Love. The names of William Lyon Mackenzie, Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, and Samuel Lount meant little to me before, but now I’d like to pay my respects to them as I explore their historic resting place. Perhaps I’ll end up exploring other parts of Toronto that day, too. Each site I pass, I’ll view with a newfound appreciation for those who built it. Because at the end of the day, Toronto, and even the world, haven’t magically appeared for use by the living. All of the foundations were set by the dead.