At a time when we are constantly reminded of the rising death toll of COVID-19, it may seem strange to do a cemetery walk. Spring may be beckoning us outdoors, but do we really want to explore a cemetery? “Yes” is the answer. On a mild, spring day, I enjoyed a walk in the gorgeous setting of the Cataraqui Cemetery. It was quiet and peaceful, but a bit of research beforehand informed me that it was not always so.
A walk in Kingston’s historic cemetery is a visual treat with its uneven topography, gracious old trees, attractive shrubs and water features. One reason that we have such a gem in the heart of the city today is that the founders were committed to a new way of designing cemeteries in the middle of the 19th century. They wanted a place that was much more pleasant to visit than the inner-city cemeteries of the day. It was to be a way of getting closer to nature.
When the Cataraqui Cemetery opened in 1850, it was one of only a few of its kind in Canada. A new trend had begun, drawing partly on the Victorians’ love of the outdoors and nature. The idea was two-fold: first, the cemetery was to be in a rural or garden-style setting; second, it was to be non-denominational. Up to that point, Kingston had only sectarian cemeteries—graveyards associated with particular religious denominations—but events on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean were beginning to have far-reaching consequences that were forcing Kingstonians to think differently about graveyards.
The Irish potato famine was leading to a mass exodus of the Irish on ships headed to ports in Canada and the US eastern seaboard. The 1840s also saw a surge in immigrants from Scotland and England. While many immigrants made the journey safely up the St. Lawrence River to Kingston, many arrived deathly ill. The crowded ships bringing Irish refugees became known as “coffin ships” because so many people had died on the voyage.
Local churches were reluctant to offer up their graveyards to the diseased bodies, wanting to ensure enough room for their own people who were already dying from outbreaks of cholera and typhus. Many Irish were hastily buried in mass graves along the Kingston waterfront, but concerned citizens viewed this as a potential health risk. Some locals suggested that a new cemetery be created beyond the town limits. Ultimately, a large site in the small village of Cataraqui was chosen.
On the Cataraqui Cemetery website, you can read about the non-denominational corporation that was established to design and operate the new cemetery. This not-for-profit corporation started in 1850 and understandably takes great pride in its ability to manage the cemetery, both as a National Historic Site and as an active cemetery with many acres of space for generations to come.
On my spring stroll in March, 2020, I enjoyed the gentle hills, gullies and well-proportioned trees. If not for the gravestones, I would have thought I was in an arboretum or a botanical garden. Clearly, the vision of the original founders to create a park-like setting was achieved.
At the time when it was created in 1850, Kingston did not have any large public parks. Essentially, the Cataraqui cemetery was Kingston’s first public park. As a park, it drew locals who wanted to connect with nature, away from the town. If you are imagining someone sitting in a lotus position contemplating life in the middle of the cemetery, think again. If you are imagining a tranquil scene of women in long dresses, you are getting warmer but that wouldn’t be the full picture. Just because it was a cemetery doesn’t mean that visitors were quiet and respectful.
What happened, in fact, was that the draw of a nature drew all kinds of people to the cemetery for a Sunday outing, not just those looking for a peaceful place to enjoy some solitude or a picnic. Kingston records show that it was sometimes a boisterous place at the turn of the twentieth century. People were racing their horses on the cemetery roads, swimming in the ponds and bringing their dogs. In response, the Cemetery Corporation had to create by-laws to prohibit these activities, which remain enforced today. The Corporation also had to deal with a new pastime adopted by some locals: shooting squirrels. At one time, the Kingston Police force even had to post a constable on weekends to maintain order. Today, the cemetery is once again a peaceful place.
When I visited the cemetery, I entered through the stone gates on Sydenham Road, north of Crossfield Avenue. The alternative is to use the main entrance where you will see the plaque that designates the cemetery as a National Historic Site. You reach the gate via John Counter Boulevard, Purdy’s Court and Purdy’s Mill Road.
Helen Cutts, KAM Visitor in Residence, Writer