Is anyone else interested in running through cemeteries, demographic history, and Commonwealth political history?
I thought Toronto was not a great running city, but today I had one of the best surprise discoveries of any run ever. There's no network of cross-city asphalt paths, so you find yourself running on the sidewalk a lot. Not that this is all bad, there is a great diversity of street life in Toronto that is worth seeing.
The best unpaved trail close to the city appeared to be the Belt Line trail on the north-eastern edge of downtown, so I ambled over there early on Sunday morning before my flight home. The trail takes you along the path of an old railway, up through a ravine, and to the entrance of Mount Pleasant Cemetery. The gates to the cemetery were closed though it was past the appointed opening hours, so I jumped the fence, following the lead of two women running slightly ahead of me.
A digression. Trust me, if you're waiting for Mackenzie King we'll get there ... Not to sound kooky, but running in cemeteries is one of life's little delights for the running historian. Not to mention the demographic historian. You can see the demographic history of the west as you run past graves. Infant mortality, and industrial accidents, and their twentieth century decline. The influenza pandemic of 1918. Drowning: "the New Zealand disease." Though no doubt others who crossed frontier rivers and lakes had high rates of death by drowning too. The remarkably high toll of the early railroad. They're all there. Infant mortality tells its simple tale just in the tiny gap between birth and death dates. Industrial accidents are less often marked on the graves, but the painful shock of death in a mine, or on the waterfront can be told in the space available on a gravestone. The rise in living standards that allowed even the working class to afford a small plot in the graveyard. North American and Australasian cemeteries are much less crowded than European ones. Sometimes the names, rather than the age and cause of death are interesting too. Local elite. Politicans. Industrial barons. Names you've also seen on storefronts.
It's almost always so peaceful in cemeteries. I grew up near Wellington's large, hilly, trail-covered Karori cemetery which was a popular place for walking and running and biking on its network of paved and unpaved paths. Some of the unpaved paths were originally paved, but like the bodies around them were reverting to a more primoridal form. And I've happily run through cemeteries in Melbourne, Hobart, Auckland, London, Bath, and Montreal. Americans, and I generalize here on the basis of Arlington National Cemetery and Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge (MA) are more apt to restrict recreation in cemeteries. Though I should mention that I've run undisturbed through Hillside Cemetery in Minneapolis, and the Mount Moriah cemetery in Deadwood (SD) (resting place of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickock. Anyway, the good managers of Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto have signs up encouraging you to walk, run, or bike through there.
Mount Pleasant, like a lot of New World cemeteries, has its Chinese immigrant section. The Chinese always appear to have gotten a spot far from the entrance, out of the way of the Catholics and the Protestants. I have no doubt this was deliberate; giving the Chinese the most marginal spot in the graveyard. But in both Karori and Notre-Dame-des-Neiges in Montréal the Chinese section for all its remoteness from the gates, were actually now in some of the prettiest spots of all.
Following the trail through Mount Pleasant on this unusually cool summer morning I was surprised to see a modern sign with a 100 word biography of William Lyon Mackenzie King, the longest serving Prime Minister in Commonwealth history. I stopped. Was his grave around here somewhere? I saw no large monument. Surely the great Grit was buried in something quite imposing. Mackenzie King is, after all, the Canadian equivalent of Franklin Roosevelt, Michael Joseph Savage, Peter Fraser, orJohn Curtin; leading his country through depression or war, or both. The Roosevelt and Savage memorials, at least, are sprawling.
But there it was, Mackenzie King's grave. A plain slab, with the simple words "Mackenzie King". Every grave around it was more assuming and imposing. There was a small, weather beaten Canadian flag on the grave, weighed down by a small stone. The grass around the grave was ragged. So there he was. Mackenzie King. Buried in a modest plot in a beautiful cemetery in Toronto, his grave distinguished from the others only by the small sign with his biography that you could easily miss.
There is, I find, a somewhat more substantial statue to the man in Ottawa (follow this link to see Lester Pearson speaking at its unveiling). But his grave was remarkable in its modesty and simplicity, and anonymity. Just there on the side of the path on my morning run. And that is why running through cemeteries is such a glorious thing.Posted by eroberts at June 12, 2006 8:14 AM | TrackBack