For nearly 180 years, the cemetery of St. James has been the final resting place of more than 224,000 people – and that’s still counting. And today, the city’s oldest surviving cemetery is teeming with life.
The Toronto monument has appeared as locations for TV shows like “Shadowhunters” and “Orphan Black” and featured prominently in the 1980 cult horror classic “Prom Night.” And before the pandemic, the cemetery hosted students from local schools.
“This is all part of our engagement strategy to enhance the image of the downtown cemetery,” said John O’Brien, St. James’s director of operations. “A lot of people tend to avoid cemeteries – it’s part of our death-denying culture. But by encouraging a cemetery as a place for passive recreation, (people) can be more comfortable.”
With age comes problems. Slope erosion in the cemetery grounds has led to the largest excavation in Ontario history, a project that has involved the relocation of hundreds of graves, and the crematorium required a significant upgrade. These are initiatives that St. James’s Cathedral is committed to investing in.
“Cemeteries should be part of the community,” O’Brien says. “They should not be hidden.” Although activity varies from year to year, St. James’ Cemetery is currently experiencing its busy season.
The Parliament Street location is the second burial site for St. James’s Cathedral; the first opened on King and Church Street in 1797. Located next to the spectacular church, the spiritual home of Toronto’s Anglican Communion, the original cemetery saw a significant amount of activity – so much so that it nearly reached capacity 50 years after its founding. . “The city of York grew so rapidly,” O’Brien says, “by the 1840s they had to look for a more suitable location.” Cathedral officials bought a 35-acre tract of land in Rosedale Valley on the corner of Parliament, south of Bloor — outside the city limits at the time, as most of Toronto’s 18,000 residents lived south of Queen Street.
The layout was drawn in 1842 and the new cemetery opened in 1844. Built in 1861, the adjacent Chapel of St. James-the-Less has since become famous in its own right. In 1990, Parks Canada National Historic Sites named the sandstone and limestone structure—with its steeply pitched roof and low side walls, protective entrance porch, bell tower, spire, and stained glass windows—one of the finest examples of Gothic Revival church architecture in the country. The chapel has helped make the cemetery “very attractive as a shooting location,” O’Brien says.
The site is equipped with: excellent examples of funerary architecture, O’Brien says, including the cemetery’s cast iron gate and sandstone pillars (built in 1905) and small family mausoleums. “In the past, families were much more local, so when they bought a cemetery, it could have 10 to 16 graves,” he says. “If they were a family of resources, they could erect a pretty big monument. These are works of art in granite, with a height of about 15 to 20 feet.”
The natural beauty of the estate is in part due to the “highly diverse population of trees dating back to close to the original age of the cemetery,” says O’Brien, adding that some oak trees are nearly 150 years old. Geographically, the cemetery has two distinct levels, along with a well-wooded cliff.
Opening St. James’ Cemetery to public use—running, dog walking, walking, picnicking, and art making (such as sketching, painting, and, for schoolchildren, grave rubbing)—is part of the engagement program, and St. James’ officials are used to it by now to be approached by companies to film. “The cemetery has attracted series or productions that required a cemetery with distinctive monument styles,” says O’Brien. “It has the appearance and presence and atmosphere of a cemetery from a bygone era.”
St. James’ Cemetery “is one of the few downtown cemeteries, making it a well-known location in many productions,” said John Rakich, an Ontario film and television location manager.
Rakich scouted St. James’ as a location for the supernatural TV series “Shadowhunters” in 2017. “It worked creatively for the story in that episode and for our production schedule,” he says. “It has a great flat layout at the beginning and then transitions into rolling hills towards Rosedale Valley.” The cemetery, he says, “is a bit older than some of them and is nice and close to the street.” Indeed, the stretch of road in front of Parliament’s cemetery between Wellesley and Bloor is often used by productions to park their trucks when shooting elsewhere nearby.
But first and foremost, St. James’ Cemetery and Crematorium is an active burial ground, though traditional coffin burials have become increasingly important in recent years, O’Brien says. Since 1844 there have been more than 100,000 burials, including members of some of Toronto’s most prominent families: Dominion Bank founder James Austin; members of the Gooderham and Worts families, who were part of early distillation history in Canada; Casimir Gzowski, an engineer known for his work on Canadian Railways and the Welland Canal; former Solicitor General, Co-Prime Minister and Attorney General Robert Baldwin; and many prominent clergy. The crematorium, inaugurated in 1948, has extended the life of the cemetery as cremations allow for a greater density of burials.
All this requires maintenance. The Cathedral of St. James has made a significant financial investment through two ongoing projects in the cemetery. The first is to restore and stabilize the south side slope of the ravine to reduce the potential for graves to migrate down the hill, an effort that has been underway since July 2021. Officials are now proceeding with the reburials. The second is an upgrade to the crematorium, installing two brand new retorts (or rooms where bodies are cremated) and building a garage to discreetly deposit the deceased, a project nearing completion.
It is clear that the priority for the Cathedral of St. James is the traditional operations of the cemetery. “We’ve made a promise to each family that we will maintain their graves forever and that’s not something we take lightly,” O’Brien says. “The increasing use of the cemetery by film companies is helping us deliver on that promise. However, we do have guidelines that these companies must follow.” When film cameras roll, the cemetery staff is committed to protecting the anonymity of the people buried there. Even if the headstones are engraved, film crews are not allowed to display any of the names, and shots of them must be out of focus.
The cemetery welcomes a growing number of genealogy researchers and is also open to school tours. “Students, usually from schools within walking distance, come for Remembrance Day or to complete history projects,” says O’Brien.
The goal, O’Brien says, is to change the way people view cemeteries. “Cemeteries are all around us and often we don’t notice their presence unless we attend a funeral,” he says. “If we can get people to come here for other reasons, even if it’s just for a walk, then the cemetery comes alive in a very real way.”
O’Brien believes the cemetery’s residents would be happy to be part of the world of the living and appear in movies and on TV. “I think they would like the idea that their presence is still being felt,” he says. “They are spectators of all these modern activities.”