Respectable Burial: Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery

By Margaret Goldik

A review of Respectable Burial: Montreal's Mount Royal Cemetery by Brian Young

Published on October 1, 2003

Respectable Burial: Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery
Brian Young

McGill-Queen's University Press
$50
cloth
232pp
0-7735-2529-7

In 2002 Mount Royal cemetery celebrated the 150th anniversary of its first burial; the following year Quebec designated the cemetery and surrounding grounds as a protected environmental and historical site.

In Respectable Burial, Brian Young explains how the original concept of this venerable cemetery (now in the heart of the city, and cheek by jowl with the Catholic Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery) came to fruition. He has done an excellent job of setting the story of the non-profit Mount Royal Cemetery Company into a broader background of social history, and of explaining the three broad trends which affected the cemetery.

In 1760 the city’s most important burial ground was inside the walls of the city, between St. Francois Xavier and what is today Victoria Square; Protestants were buried in a corner of the Catholic cemetery. In 1797 the Protestants bought land for their own burial ground outside the city, in what is now the site of complexe Guy Favreau on boulevard René-Lévèsque. As this and other graveyards filled up, “the trustees of the Protestant Burial Ground…toward the end of 1845 began to promote the idea of building a new non-denominational cemetery well outside the city’s suburbs. A spot should be chosen, the Montreal Gazette argued, that was far enough away from town to be out of sight and large enough to meet the needs of Montrealers for a century or more.”

The first meetings for developing the cemetery involved Protestant denominations, Roman Catholics, and a Jew. “Despite the trustees’ sectarian convictions and their ambivalence to Catholicism, their burial grounds were marked by an inclusiveness that offered burial to all Montrealers – suicides and the excommunicated, for example – who did not find place in a consecrated Catholic burial ground.” This inclusiveness was extended to the indigent dead, those without a faith, and, later, Catholics who chose cremation.

Land on Mount Royal was purchased in the 1850s, and the trustees sought advice from the American specialists of the rural cemetery movement. The design was based on that of Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and involved a grandiose entrance area, green spaces, extravagant urns, crosses, and a Romantic landscape. The Victorian ideal of the time is detailed in this first phase – this was to be a rural cemetery, not an urban graveyard.

During the next century, the “Lawn Plan” became a more fashionable cemetery model. The superintendent of this period, Ormiston Roy, turned against the “unkempt” nature of the rural cemetery. “His generation was uncomfortable with the Victorian exaggerations of Death, Classicism, Religion, and the Individual…He used blasting, forest-clearing, and construction technology to create a more secular and park-like setting…” The ideal at this time rejected mausoleums and overt signs of death, emphasizing flowering shrubs and headstones laid flush on the grass to facilitate mowing. (Mechanical mowers were introduced in 1897.)

Finally came technology: computerized record keeping, a unionized workforce, backhoes that could open a grave, winter or summer, in 20 minutes. The company also faced environmentalist concerns and growing Quebec nationalism, with its perception of the cemetery as being English, rich and elitist. A major threat was from the multinational “death-care” corporations which devoured most of the funeral homes in Montreal. In order to survive, Mount Royal Cemetery Company had to enter the funeral business itself, and to learn new and aggressive marketing. The Cemetery Company has also had to become a bilingual association, and to solicit business from ethnic communities.

The subject of cremation has a chapter of its own. The opening of the crematorium (paid for by a donation from William Macdonald of the tobacco empire) took place in 1902, and for many years this was the only crematorium in Canada. “In contrast to the place given in the past to public grieving and memorializing in the cemetery, cremation was promoted as discreet, sterile and essentially private,” replacing the gruesome with order and decorum. “The purging fire of cremation had clear links to purity, soap, and what the Methodist Christian Guardian called ‘the gospel of the toothbrush.'”

Geoffrey James’s photographs are superb, capturing the cemetery’s many moods in different seasons. Though his images are peaceful and spare, James does not ignore the tension inherent in a necropolis which is also a park: in one photograph an open grave is a stark reminder of the real purpose of Mount Royal Cemetery. mRb

Margaret Goldik is a former editor of the Montreal Review of Books.

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