History of Cataraqui Cemetery

The Beginning of a Historic Garden Cemetery

“… a beautiful spot of seventy acres has been purchased… we feel assured that a spot better adapted for a Cemetery could not have been selected, and we rejoice that at last a rural Cemetery is established; and we think… the availableness of the entire ground for purposes of interment or the beauty of the surrounding scenery, that the Cataraqui cemetery will soon compare favourably with other Cemeteries on this continent. ” An editorial in the Daily British Whig (Kingston) of June 2nd, 1853.

Kingston of the early 1830’s and 1840’s had quickly expanded from its earlier United Empire Loyalist roots. With the completion of the Rideau Canal and the local military fortifications, immigration to the area had begun to increase.  The Town of Kingston was seeing first hand the qualities of many of the larger North American towns and cities as new ideas and wealth flowed into the town.   Kingston’s growth was directly linked to the increase of goods and immigrants that entered her port after traveling up the St. Lawrence River from Montreal and abroad.  As the city began to grow, inner city burial locations became fewer.   Unknowingly, the boom in Kingston would bring the unwanted presence of deadly disease.  Cholera and typhus would take hold on the shores of Lake Ontario as epidemics.  Ships loaded with the families of Irish, Scottish and English immigrants would sail into the port of Kingston carrying a hidden deadly cargo within the cramped and poor conditions.  At a time when Kingston’s small churchyards and burying grounds could barely find room for their own citizens, the large number of dead and dying immigrants posed a crisis.  As a result of the panic that ensued, mass graves of Irish Immigrants were dug on the Kingston waterfront. 

Disease and fear began to spread quickly to Kingston’s citizens.  It was believed that the buried deceased would spout deadly gases and fumes causing others to become ill and die.  The citizens no longer wanted burials within town limits.  Town leaders had to act.  A call went out for the closure of the city burial grounds and the creation of a new cemetery beyond the town limits. 

Immigration had brought some old world attitudes among the lower classes.  However it was the new ideas and attitudes among the educated and merchant classes and of those immigrants that realized that religious and ethnic tolerance were the key to success and opportunity in a new land.  More and more citizens became discontent with the old world attitudes and the sectarian policies of the church run burial grounds.  The Romantic Movement that was taking hold among their American cousins also influenced political and social life in early Kingston.  The answer to the city’s burial concerns came from a group that would work together to create a new public cemetery that was not influenced by church or municipal politics.  Created out of necessity and changing social attitudes,  The Cataraqui Cemetery Company was born.  It was a unique corporation tasked to build a cemetery that was fundamentally very different than anything before it;  a not for profit, non-denominational, rural reform public garden cemetery .

The Cataraqui Cemetery Company began by being incorporated on August 10th, 1850 by a special Act of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada.  Sir Alexander Campbell (later to become a Father of Confederation and former law partner of Sir John A. Macdonald) held the position as the first President of The Cataraqui Cemetery Company's Board of Trustees.  Shares were sold to raise the capital needed to purchase 70 acres of land in Waterloo Village (now known as Cataraqui Village) and to layout the Cemetery.  Once enough shares and capital were raised, shareholders could exchange their share for Interment Rights (a burial lot).  Families then came to select their plots. 

Note:  There is a perversion of history falsely claiming that Sir John A. Macdonald was instrumental in founding Cataraqui Cemetery and that he personally had a hand in  crafting the Cemetery's Act of Incorporation.  Even though Sir John A. Macdonald had much influence in the area  and was one of 60+ original shareholders who later became a plot owner at Cataraqui, there is very little to no evidence suggesting he had any involvement in the founding of the cemetery or the drafting of the Act of Incorporation.  The model for the Cemetery's Act of Incorporation, though very special, was not reserved or applied exclusively to Cataraqui. Three other early cemeteries used the same model and were incorporated on the same day.  The model for the Acts were also the basis for a general Act allowing many other cemeteries in Ontario to uniformly Incorporate.  Cataraqui's Act of Incorporation clearly states the efforts and role of Campbell, Thomas Kirkpatrick and other specifically named individuals.  Macdonald is not named.  Furthermore, it serves to remember that Macdonald was the member of parliament for Kingston.  However,  Cataraqui Cemetery of 1850, was not yet within the Kingston boundary and was part of Frontenac.  The district of Frontenac was represented at the Legislature by Sir Henry Smith Jr..  The journals of the 3rd Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada show that it was Smith who presented and carried the Act to the Legislature for consideration.  

As a reform cemetery, Cataraqui was (and remains) administered collectively by a Board of Trustees elected from the patrons (members of the corporation)  A member remains any person that purchased interment rights to a lot within the cemetery.  It is important to note that to this day, any person who purchases interment rights at Cataraqui Cemetery becomes a "non-capital share holder" or  "member" of a historic cemetery partly founded by two Fathers of Confederation  and several other historically prominent Kingston men and women.  We continue our tradition of a not for profit, non denominational, reform cemetery of the rural garden style.

It was agreed that the Cemetery would be influenced and built to the standards of the emerging rural (garden) concepts of cemeteries.  Examples include the  American/British/French cemeteries of Mount Auburn in Boston Massachusetts, Kensal Green in London England, and the inspiration for all, Pere Lachaise in Paris France.  Cataraqui Cemetery, with direct links to these famous and impressive cemeteries, was one of only two or three of the first generation of its kind in Canada.  Cataraqui’s American designer, Fredrick Cornell, was particularly influenced by Mount Auburn, Mount Hope in Rochester NY and the growing Romantic Movement in America.  

The rural cemetery style is more than just a cemetery located outside of a town's limits.  The specific style embraces the pastoral elements of the local environment, surrounding natural terrain and physical features.  All of which are  enhanced with natural and artistic forms to create a picturesque landscape and setting.  The design of the cemetery is planned to be organic and flowing as opposed to the rigid geometric block concept that cities were using for their urban planning.  Winding roads were laid out using the contours of the hilly terrain.  Scenic water courses and ponds were retained.  Verdant vistas and picturesque viewscapes were enhanced with the thinning of large mature trees and the selective placing of ornamental  plantings, crafted monuments and allegorical statuary. Cataraqui Cemetery embraced the uniqueness of its chosen setting and life affirming environment.    

Rural style cemeteries are the fore runner open spaces that led to the North American movement creating public parks. Cataraqui cemetery served in this capacity for a number of years.  Predating Kingston's earliest parks, including City Park, Cataraqui was host to many weekend visitors.  At one time, visitors became so numerous that a constable was required to control the crowds and special by-laws were passed to prevent swimming in the ponds, no picking flowers, no dogs or no racing horses on the cemetery avenues.  Signs were even posted asking visitors to not molest (shoot) the squirrels.   To this day Cataraqui remains a valuable open space for visitors  seeking a park like atmosphere.  Early morning joggers and walkers, winter cross country skiers and year round hikers can be seen regularly.  Artists, photographers  and bird watchers also take in the sights.