“The Toronto Book of the Dead” by Adam Bunch
c.2017, Dundurn $16.99
U.S. and Canada 423 pages
Watch your step!
Be careful where you tread; you don’t want to disturb anything important beneath the soil. Watch your feet; be mindful of where you put them. As you’ll see in “The Toronto Book of the Dead” by Adam Bunch, you’re not the first to walk on hallowed grounds.
In the Victorian Age, “Garden cemeteries were all the rage….”
As cities grew crowded and open areas were dear, green spaces around tombstones and monuments became places for picnics and gatherings, and cemeteries were “as much parks as they were boneyards.” This odd fact fascinated Adam Bunch and so, in 2010, he founded the Toronto Dreams Project, which uniquely explores the city’s past. Part of the project is based on where history lays buried.
In 1956, for instance, the building of a new subdivision in Scarborough was abruptly halted when the bones of five hundred people were discovered, having lain in the ground some 600 years. They were Wendats (later known as the Huron people) whose burial practices, which occurred every “ten to thirty years,” included a festival and visitors from surrounding communities who brought their dead along, too.
Elizabeth Simcoe, the young wife of Upper Canada’s first lieutenant governor, left a life of luxury and comfort to move to the wilderness in 1793. Though it had to be a culture shock, she seemed content with the challenge, bringing gentility to the growing city. But, says Bunch, it was a “dangerous time” then, so it’s no surprise that Elizabeth journaled one specific nightmare of death and violence.
As it turned out, however, the nightmare was prophetic…
Once upon a time, a man was executed in Toronto for forging a three-shilling note – just under a dollar, in today’s cash. Because of a cholera epidemic in the early 1800s, some six thousand victims of the disease lie in the ground under St. James Park. And Reformer Robert Baldwin left instructions that his corpse be defiled upon his death; today, his coffin is “chained to the bones of the woman he loved.”
Sometimes gruesome, sometimes eerie, “The Toronto Book of the Dead” is also highly fascinating and very informative.
What makes it so is that author Adam Bunch treats death and tragedy with respect, but also with the feel of an insider’s travelogue. Here is where ancient bones were found. There is where Canada’s first hanging happened. Toppy Topham almost died here, here, and here. Over there, a beloved literary figure perished from an “apparent suicide.” The site references lend immediacy to these stories, which range from Toronto’s beginnings to tales that are quite recent, in lengths from a few pages to near-novella size. That, of course, makes them perfect for day-trips, macabre outings, or just for browsing on what’s left of a long winter’s night…
You don’t have to live in Toronto to enjoy what’s inside “The Toronto Book of the Dead.” You can sit right in your own chair, miles away, and dig in. Just know that what you’re reading is true, every step of the way.