The Eaton Monument, Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto. Photo by Alma Sinan.
by Alma Sinan
“Hey, Morticia! Late for the funeral?”
As I approach the cemetery, a group of teenage boys walks toward me.
I’ve heard comments like these hundreds of times. My refusal to adopt the fashions of the 21st century invites criticism. My long hair is the color of coal. I wear white foundation, rim my eyes with ebony, and paint my lips pomegranate red. I have a piercing in my right eyebrow. Images of coffins and skeletons appear on most of my silver jewelry. From head to toe, I clothe myself in black, preferring the lace and velvet garments of yesteryear.
“It’s a beautiful day,” I say, giving the boys my warmest smile. “Enjoy it. We don’t live forever.” I’ve learned that it’s easier to be nice to people than to get angry. Besides, the last thing I want is a confrontation.
One of them yells a final, “Halloween’s in October!” before they laugh and walk away.
I enter Mount Pleasant Cemetery through the iron gates and breathe a sigh of relief. In this place I feel safe—safe from prying eyes and hurtful comments. It’s as if I’ve come home.
Traffic noises and other sounds of civilization fade as I stroll deeper into the cemetery. Soon all I hear is birdsong and the clicking of my heels against the pavement.
The monuments in Mount Pleasant comfort me. I love how they crowd in on every side as I walk along the path. Marble gravestones gleam white in the sun. Obelisks and columns rise like exclamation marks above family graves. “Look at me,” they seem to say. “I once lived!” Sculptures of maidens weep eternally for loved ones long gone. As always, I’m overcome by the beauty of this place. I love all graveyards, but I confess a preference for Victorian cemeteries like Mount Pleasant.
Last week I visited a “memorial garden.” It wasn’t a garden at all. Instead, it was a field filled with rows of cookie-cutter plaques laid flush with the ground. The scent of freshly cut grass hung in the air. Lawnmowers swept across the graves, unhindered by pesky upright tombstones. The price paid for this convenience was individualism. The desolate space could just as well have been a mass grave.
I kept thinking, “Where is the ‘memory’ in this ‘memorial’ garden?” I walked through a field of names and dates that meant nothing to me. A regulated grave marker is too small to hint at the deceased’s unique personality.
I gazed out across the windblown solitude of the field and felt an overwhelming sense of sadness. I realized that, in the modern day, we die the way we live: in loneliness. Single graves have become common. Relatives are rarely buried together on the same plot of land, the way they once were. This is partly due to the fragmentation of the modern family unit, which corresponds with improvements in transportation that made it easier for people to relocate. The dead, like the living, are scattered across the world. Is it any wonder we feel so disconnected?
In the Memorial Garden, plaques lay hidden within the vast manicured lawn. From a distance, there wasn’t any clue that the space was being used as a graveyard. Death had been “tastefully” concealed.
We do not live with death the way the Victorians did, with rampant fatal diseases and a high rate of child mortality. Few of us see death firsthand. Thanks to advances in medicine, we live longer. We go to great lengths to maintain the illusion of youth, sometimes resorting to cosmetic surgery to deny natural aging processes. The elderly are hidden in rest homes. Even the dead are rouged to give them the appearance of living. Because death has been erased from our sight, we wander through life, smug in the belief of our own immortality. Memorial Gardens help maintain this illusion. The modern-day cowardice to face death saddens me. Its arrogance in pretending that death does not exist infuriates me.
I breathe in the scent of blossoms and damp earth and shake away the memory of the memorial garden. Right now, I’m in Mount Pleasant, in the presence of Victorians and Edwardians who knew how to celebrate life and death. Here, monuments document a person’s life through inscriptions and symbols. Here, the dead are my friends. Within this cemetery, past and present seem to merge.
One and a quarter centuries are contained within this sacred space. Although Mount Pleasant opened in 1876, some graves here predate it. I reach a plaque that marks “The Resting Place of the Pioneers.” In the mid-1850s, the York General Burial Ground (a Potter’s Field) was closed down and the bodies relocated to other graveyards. The unclaimed remains came here. I always make this my first stop and say a silent prayer for these forgotten souls.
I also say a prayer for the forgotten souls created by the modern age. We have become so isolated. Why go out and talk to your neighbor when you have access to the world through your computer and TV? Most of us are so busy trying to make a living that we have little time to socialize. There’s no need to learn the art of conversation or the basic rules of etiquette. Is there really a need for human contact anymore?
I continue along the path that winds through Mount Pleasant. The sun bakes my pale skin and pierces my eyes. My black clothes absorb the heat. Sweat trickles down my spine as I trudge up a steep incline.
Halfway up the hill, I wander into a pool of shade. The tension seeps out of my body. A wave of wind splashes across my face. The maples mimic the sound of the sea. A delicious peace washes through my heart. Then I continue wading through puddles of shadow and light.
I crest the hill and gasp at the magnificent view. Here, the path perches above a ravine and overlooks the lower tier of the cemetery. Gravestones cling to the expanse of lawn like pearls woven into emerald silk.
A year ago, at a nearby Starbucks, I overheard a man tell his friend, “Mount Pleasant up the street—what a waste of prime real estate! Put up a couple of condos there, you know what they’d go for? We’re wasting perfectly good land on the dead.”
How could I tell him that the cemetery existed long before the city encroached? How could I explain that the Victorians designed their cemeteries not only for the dead, but for the living to enjoy as well? How I could I express my disappointment with this century’s lack of respect for nature and death?
With a sigh, I resume following the cemetery path. Mausoleums loom ahead of me in a section known as “Millionaires’ Row.” Small-scale Grecian temples line the ridge, eternal homes of some of the city’s proudest and wealthiest families.
I reach the Eaton Mausoleum and walk past the bronze lions guarding the entrance. Corinthian columns encompass the building. I stare up at the exquisitely carved acanthus leaves and yearn to return to an age when craftsmanship was valued.
The Victorians often drew their inspiration from the past. Classical architecture was considered the epitome of beauty. By replicating styles found in antiquity, the Victorians hoped to infuse their own culture with grace.
As a Romantic, I also long for yesteryear. My clothes, my home, the literature I read, the music I listen to are all an attempt to recapture a dream of an age long ago. This nostalgia is more than a fashion statement. It is an attempt to kindle my life with elegance and beauty.
I see a sparrow bathing in a large urn up ahead. My footfall startles the bird, which flies to a nearby tree. I walk to the urn and peer into the rainwater. Like a scrying glass, the dark pool reflects the clouds above. Upon this liquid mirror floats a single feather. Visions of flight fill my head. I remember what happened to Icarus when he flew too high. Perhaps, one day, we too will come crashing down.
A dreadful image of the World Trade Towers flashes through my mind.
“You like visiting graveyards? That’s so morbid,” a friend once told me. “Why are you so obsessed with death?”
“I’m conscious that there’s a deadline to my life, so I don’t waste it or take it for granted,” I replied. “Cemeteries remind me of the precious time that I have left here on earth. What’s morbid about that?”
The Baker Monument, photographed by Alma Sinan.
As I round a bend in the path, the Baker monument looks like a dead tree. Limestone branches are broken or sawn off. A dead bird has been carved into the base of the sculpture. The carver also added a vine that climbs the tree trunk. I run my fingers across the twisting stone ivy and think about the symbolism of the monument. Although the tree is dead, life still flourishes there. In fact, life flourishes because of death. This gravestone embodies my entire philosophy.
My favorite word is the German sensucht, broadly defined as melancholy. The word implies a general feeling of sorrow but also encompasses a state of yearning. A yearning for what? Connection—with people, nature, the past, the universe. Saying the word aloud, I feel longing deep within me.
A hush settles within the cemetery. An amber glow veils the gravestones. The sun curtsies upon the horizon, spreading her skirts of scarlet and gold across the sky. It’s getting late. Reluctantly, I head back toward the cemetery gate.
Just before reaching the entrance, I stop in front of an angel frozen in stone. As I stare at her, I feel an unexpected rush of gratitude to be living in this century. The angel’s face is oppressed by unyielding marble skin. Had I lived two centuries earlier, I would have been trained to repress my feelings. I feel grateful for the freedom to express my thoughts and emotions. The Victorian angel stands before me, her wings immobile. The 21st century has given me the ability to fly in any direction I choose. I have freedom to believe what I wish, dress any way I choose, and be whomever I want to be.
I reach the gate and see one of the groundskeepers. “Good night,” I wish him.
“It is,” he says. “Enjoy it. We don’t live forever.”
This essay originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #7. Reprinted here with Alma’s kind permission.
Alma Sinan is the Chair of the Ontario Chapter of the Association for Gravestone Studies. She has given professional tours and talks on cemetery design and gravestone symbolism, and hosts a monthly Morbid Curiosity Book Club in Toronto. Her short stories and articles have been published internationally. Interested in Alma’s events? Please join her meetup “Tombstone Tourists” for updates: http://www.meetup.com/Tombstone-Tourists-Meetup/events/220195867/
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.