Touring through Time: Unearthing the Buried History of Toronto Cemeteries

How one woman is bringing the stories of the dead back to life

(CanCulture/Annemarie Cutruzzola)

(CanCulture/Annemarie Cutruzzola)

By Annemarie Cutruzzola

The grave of John Croft probably wouldn’t catch your eye among the countless other statuesque headstones and towering memorials of Mount Pleasant Cemetery. It’s a humble concrete grave marker lying flat on the ground, surrounded by fallen leaves. The plot is shared with two relatives, Sarah and Robert. Walking by, you wouldn’t know that a tragic story of a massive Toronto fire lies beneath. 

So, who is keeping buried stories like John Croft’s alive? Chantal Morris is the woman behind Toronto Cemetery Tours. Morris hosts a variety of tours at different Toronto cemeteries, mainly at Mount Pleasant and the historic Toronto Necropolis. She researches, plans, leads, and promotes the tours all by herself. Each tour has a theme. Some are focused on the stories of escaped slaves, others on significant women in Canada’s history — a tour she says is especially close to her heart. 

On the last stop of her Mount Pleasant Cemetery tour on Oct. 19, Chantal Morris tells the story of how Torontonian Andrew Young was murdered. (CanCulture/Annemarie Cutruzzola).

On the last stop of her Mount Pleasant Cemetery tour on Oct. 19, Chantal Morris tells the story of how Torontonian Andrew Young was murdered. (CanCulture/Annemarie Cutruzzola).

A crowd of approximately 130 people gathered near the majestic Yonge Street gates of Mount Pleasant Cemetery on Oct. 19, most huddled in groups or pairs. It was a perfect fall day, and a slight chill in the air meant a few scarves and Starbucks coffees could be spotted.   

As the group walked on into the late afternoon, the sun was slowly setting through the brightly coloured leaves, its reflection illuminating the tops of countless headstones they passed. The winding paths and abundance of trees gave the cemetery a park-like atmosphere. After a few minutes of walking, the sounds of the city faded away into a strange type of solemn quietude you really only experience in cemeteries.

The group was on Morris’ most recent tour called “Gone Too Soon: Tales of Murder and Unfortunate Death.” For the past three Saturdays, Morris has led hundreds of people, young and old on a tour of 13 stops around Mount Pleasant Cemetery, each one connected to the thrilling story of a tragic death that occurred in or around Toronto from 1763 to 1948. The stories focus on murder, both solved and unsolved, but there are interwoven themes of jealousy, revenge, greed and deception. Over the course of two hours, Morris tells tales of scams, poison, possible cover ups and a couple of unfortunate accidents — one of those being the death of John Croft.

The tour group visited the final resting place of John Croft at Mount Pleasant Cemetery on Oct. 19.(CanCulture/Annemarie Cutruzzola)

The tour group visited the final resting place of John Croft at Mount Pleasant Cemetery on Oct. 19.(CanCulture/Annemarie Cutruzzola)

In 1904, the second of three large-scale fires in Toronto’s history burned 20 acres of downtown and destroyed 125 businesses. Despite the fire lasting 12 hours, no one died in the blaze. The sole casualty was a result of the cleanup.

Croft was an explosives expert on a team responsible for the demolition of buildings destroyed in the fire. When one explosive didn’t go off as planned, Croft approached it to investigate, only to have it explode. He was badly injured and died in the hospital shortly after. Croft Street, near the intersection of Bathurst and College streets, was named in his honour and has a historic plaque with his story and murals depicting the story of the fire. 

One-woman tour company tells stories of Toronto’s cemeteries

Morris sets herself apart from other historic tours by focusing on telling stories rather than spouting facts. The information she conveys is still factual and research-based, but there’s a bit of dramatic flair to her storytelling that makes the tour entertaining and engaging. She sets the scene of her stories, including background information and details that paint the whole picture.

“I just want to immerse you in the story so that you can really feel it,” said Morris.

She says she often gets asked if she’s an actress. Although the answer is no, with her suspenseful narration style, it isn’t hard to picture her as the narrator of a murder mystery movie.

Morris says she’s baffled by how little some Torontonians know about the rich history of the city and those who lived here before us.

“I want people to become interested in their local history and their local background and the people who literally paved the way for them to live the lives they have now, especially when it comes to both women and people of colour,” she said.

Her company’s logo, which combines a classic skull and crossbones with the Toronto skyline, also reflects a desire for modern society to learn about and acknowledge the people who came before us.

(CanCulture/Annemarie Cutruzzola)

(CanCulture/Annemarie Cutruzzola)

Morris has been able to reach thousands of people through her tours, mainly by promoting the events on the company’s Facebook page. She accepts donations but her public tours are free to attend, and she also offers private group tours.

Since she started giving tours, she’s seen the impact that learning about local history can have. The cemetery management have told her they’ve noticed people showing more respect for the cemetery and interest in its preservation.

On a more philosophical level, Morris also hopes her tours will encourage people to think differently about death. “We're very sanitized when it comes to death. You get sick, you go to a hospital, you’ll probably die in the hospital. And it's very removed,” said Morris. 

Despite the beauty of the cemetery itself, reminders of death surround you at every turn. Walking through any cemetery can push you to acknowledge the inevitability of death. “Death is something that's going to happen to all of us,” said Morris. “ I don't think we should be afraid of it.” 

The winding roads of Mount Pleasant

The last Toronto Cemetery Tour of the year is scheduled for November 9, but Morris says she has plenty of material for more tours next season. However, writing and planning a tour is no easy task. Morris has to choose which graves to visit and plan the route carefully to keep it at a reasonable two hours. This October’s tour only covered the oldest half of Mount Pleasant Cemetery, which is the area closer to Yonge Street. 

First opened in 1876, Mount Pleasant is a sprawling 205 acres, stretching from Yonge Street to Bayview Avenue. Mount Pleasant Road cuts through the cemetery and was in fact named after the burial ground, not vice versa. The cemetery is also known for its variety of tree species and the beautiful fall foliage. 

Mount Pleasant is the final resting place for quite a few notable Canadians. There’s William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s 10th Prime Minister who appears on our fifty-dollar bill. The Massey family and the Eaton family have their own mausoleums in a section of the cemetery some call “Millionaire’s Row.” 

The Eaton family mausoleum towers over Mount Pleasant Cemetery on Oct. 19. (CanCulture/Annemarie Cutruzzola)

The Eaton family mausoleum towers over Mount Pleasant Cemetery on Oct. 19. (CanCulture/Annemarie Cutruzzola)

There is so much to be discovered in the depths of Mount Pleasant if you take the time to do so. The rows of trees currently flaunting peak fall colours, secluded alcoves, and countless little paths and detours give the cemetery the charm of a park and provide an escape from the chaos of city life. But the grandeur of the occasional mausoleum, obelisk or majestic statue creates an awe-factor you might not expect from a cemetery.

A walk through Mount Pleasant Cemetery or any one of Toronto’s many beautiful cemeteries will bring you on a quiet journey through the history of Toronto. “Bring your friends out, make an effort to go. It's so easy to sit down and watch more Netflix,” said Morris. “But do it because it's worth it.”