Historic Cemeteries & Graveyards in Ontario

by         Jennifer McKendry

a careful, fully illustrated, examination of graveyard and cemetery design, furnishings, architecture, & grave markers found in selected historic “cities of the dead.”


"the definitive work on the burial grounds of Ontario"

                  ~ The Ontario Historical Society Bulletin


"Jennifer McKendry has written the book on Ontario cemeteries"

~ The Ontario Farmer


372 pages,      367 b & w photos & drawings plus 11 in colour,     pb,      8.5 x 11 in.,        ISBN 0-9697187-5-6,  $45 (new reduced price, originally $53) plus postage buy this book

Click here for a list of CONTENTS


 I would like to compliment you on your excellent work. Research and studies into the history of cemeteries is extremely important and you bring sensitivity and a viewpoint to the subject that has not been expressed before.”

         Glen E. Timney, President,

         Ontario Association of Cemetery and Funeral Professionals


"GRAVEYARD HISTORY: A WELL RESEARCHED, PROFOUND EXPLORATION....Weighing in at a whopping 372 pages, Silent Land is rammed packed with knowledge that most history buffs might not wish to revel in, but cannot do without. The author treats the sorrows that lie at the heart of graveyards with tenderness and sympathy. ..She is a pioneer in that undiscovered country of our grave history."

                                                 The Upper Canadian, vol. 23, Nov./Dec. 2003.


"I recently received a wonderful "get well" gift, INTO THE SILENT LAND written and published by Jennifer McKendry. Dr Jennifer McKendry, PhD, an architectural historian, has researched and photographed Ontario's cemeteries for a great many years. This 372-page book is the result of this research. The text in each section shows the thorough research that has been undertaken. Colour and black and white photographs as well as drawings attest to her skills as an artist and photographer. The author studied all types of cemeteries from the layout of traditional graveyards to beautiful garden cemeteries. There is a section devoted to architecture that honours the dead and shows the elaborate structures chosen by families. The section on grave markers identifies some of the earliest markers, materials, shapes, and styles. Imagery, religious motifs, and epitaphs are shown, and their origins researched, through biblical, literary and other historical sources. There is an extensive list of 19th century designers and carvers with brief information on each one. INTO THE SILENT LAND is the definitive work on the burial grounds of Ontario. The author has been sensitive to the personal aspects of death and religious customs. The burial traditions and commemorations of the deceased reflect the community and the period in which the family lived. Memorials to the deceased are a lasting legacy and a silent sentinel of tribute."

                   "Cemetery News" by Marjorie Stuart

                   The Ontario Historical Society Bulletin, Dec. 2003, p. 5


Jennifer McKendry has written the book on cemeteries. She didn’t have a choice. There weren’t any others around, at least none that looked at cemeteries across the province from an art history focus.

There were plenty that looked at area cemeteries, or that mapped out where to find famous or interesting people, but none that made a province-wide comparison or that studied such things as cemetery design and architecture, history of the markers and imagery on the markers.

McKendry is an architectural historian. Author of a variety of books, she is also a member of the Association for Gravestone Studies, the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada, the Ontario Historical Society, the Frontenac Heritage Foundation, and the Kingston Historical Society. Several years ago, after moving to Kingston, she began working on her Ph. D thesis in art history for the University of Toronto. This thesis evolved into a book.

As well as being an historian she is a photographer and she began an illustrated history of the Cataraqui Cemetery in Kingston. While working on this project she found that there was a shortage of information comparing cemeteries. She decided to make this a focus of her own work; however, there are thousands of cemeteries in Ontario. Her first problem was deciding which cemeteries to study. She presented her idea and her dilemma to the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario asking the members to put the names of their favourite cemeteries on a piece of paper, “and I hit pay dirt.”

Those bits of paper formed the itinerary for her research field trip and led her to over 200 cemeteries spread across the province.

The focus of [ the chapter on cemetery design] is garden cemeteries, large landscaped cemeteries established after 1850. Prior to this, cemeteries tended to be traditional in plan, laid out in a grid and associated with a church. Or else they were private cemeteries located on a corner of the family farm.

Garden cemeteries were characterized by their location on large plots of land in the suburbs or rural areas near a town or city. (Those cities have in many cases have since grown out and enveloped them.) Established by individual companies, they were non-denominational and non-profit with free graves provided for “strangers and the poor.” Landscaping was an important design feature resulting in the catch-phrase “garden cemeteries”. This celebration of death, says McKendry, particularly in garden cemeteries, makes them pleasant to visit. Along with head stones there are mausoleums, flower urns, fountains, chapels, flower beds, shrubs and mature shade trees.

One event that led Kingston to develop garden cemeteries was a typhoid epidemic in 1846. Ships from Ireland were steadily bringing immigrants to the new world. Unfortunately, the immigrants would step off the ship, lie down and die on the shores. Within two years, 1400 people had died of typhoid fever. The only cemeteries in existence at that time were the small denominational cemeteries intended for the congregational members. The city organizers realized they needed greater cemetery acreage and on the outer limits of the city. There were growing health concerns with the rising crowded cemeteries within city limits.

The architecture associated with graveyards, says McKendry, “has two purposes: to honour and record the dead and to elevate prestige of the living.” Churches, chapels, gate-lodges, dead houses, and mausoleums reflect cultural perceptions of death. During the Victorian era family was held in high regard, sentimentalized, worshipped and the family or communal mausoleum distinguished and commemorated the family name. A substantial three-dimensional masonry building allowed the body to lie untouched by the “suffocating earth.”

One family mausoleum located on a private estate on the Shore Road near Adolphustown was built for the Allison family in 1873. McKendry says, “it is spectacularly sited on the shores of the Bay of Quinte off Lake Ontario. An iron fence surrounds three sides of the large lot, once part of 600 acres belonging to this Loyalist family.”

The gates to cemeteries are symbolic. On the non-cemetery side is ordinary secular life, on the other, sacred ground. Gates also served the very practical purpose, originally, of keeping the cattle from grazing among the head stones. Mortuaries are a reflection of dealing with the practicality of the Canadian winter and the gate-lodge was quite simply where the grounds keeper lived. They are still used for that purpose in some cities.

McKendry also looks at grave markers and their imagery from this time period. “Grave markers may be the most important means of recording one’s passage on earth,” she says. During the 19th century, the carving of a hand or hands was common. These could represent various ideas. If they were stretched toward the ground, that is coming from heaven, they represented God offering a blessing.

Occasionally the hand grasped a grape vine, representing wine the symbol of the blood of Christ sacrificed for humanity. If the hands were reaching to heaven, it was believed to be the deceased’s soul striving for heaven.

Willow trees were also used. These trees, even if cut down, regenerate. “No matter what the adversity they will rise up and continue.” And the rose, which was also used. is a symbol of mortality and the passage of time. Doves were recognized for a variety of different roles they represented in the bible: peace, purity, the Trinity and as a messenger.

Occasionally the deceased is remembered in a life size statue, or mourners are carved in the stone. While angels are found in great numbers on historical Ontario grave markers, cherubs generally only appear in the form of a head with wings. Babies without wings, says McKendry represent the specific deceased children; winged heads, represent the deceased’s soul, which is able to fly to heaven. Angels represent resurrection. They attend death beds, mourn the deceased, guide the deceased to heaven, and symbolize the triumph of good over evil.

These carvings were not chosen idly, says McKendry. This was a society that lived with death on a constant basis; the reality of death enveloped them. The poetry of the time and the hymns of the day, she says, have very strong death images. She believes the symbolism of their choices was not lost on these early Canadians.

By the 19th century, Ontario had been settled for over 100 years. There was a growing sense of the importance of the pioneers, of local history, and family roots. It was being recognized that cemeteries provided a record of everyone, wealthy or poor, educated or illiterate. They silently declared, “we were here.”

                                      June Flath for the Ontario Farmer  Vol. 37 No. 15 (8 June 2004): 16-17

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