Excerpt from “Walk C” in “St. Catharines A-Z” by Junius, originally published in the St. Catharines Journal on May 29th, 1856:
“We think all praise is justly due to our Town Authorities for their fit selection of the Emmet Grounds, some 2 ½ miles East on the Queenston Road, for a public Cemetery… We trust our City Fathers will bestow a becoming degree of liberality, in beautifying and ornamenting our new Cemetery with the weeping willow, mountain ash, horse chestnut and various other shade trees; and that our citizens plant the rose-bush, the violet, the pink, the sweet William, the geranium and different other flowers, according to their different tastes on their several plots, during the ensuing summer and fall.”
Junius goes on to speak of all different burial traditions around the world and describes his conception of a local cemetery that is extravagant and beautiful with no weeds or thistles nor pigs or cattle roaming over the grounds, disturbing the plots. He dubs the new St. Catharines cemetery “Mount Hope” where our spirits will “quietly rest in such a peaceful, secluded Cemetery … in that land of perennial flowers and bloom and reign, with that Emanuel in a world, where Cemeteries and partings and death are unknown forever.”
Victoria Lawn Cemetery is certainly what he imagined, even still today, peaceful and serene with its well-kept, beautiful gardens, pathways and trees. But, were the concerns surrounding the creation of a city run cemetery as easy and fantastical as described by Junius? Was the main concern ensuring that it would be lavish and attractive, adorned with all things beautiful just like burial sites in Egypt or the Orient?
Prior to the establishment of a municipally owned and operated cemetery, people were buried in the cemeteries on local church grounds. A problem arose when the church cemeteries faced a shortage of space. The recommendation for a public cemetery was first suggested by Mayor Bernard Foley in 1850, however the idea did not come to fruition until 1856 when James Emmett sold 23 acres of his farmland to the city for $6000. A committee was formed, plans were drawn up and public notices for the sale of individual plots were printed in local papers. By 1857 burials were no longer permitted within city limits.
Establishing a municipal cemetery did not come without controversy. Multiple churches believed that portions of the cemetery should be segregated for different religions so that members of one religion would not have to be buried next to someone of a different faith. Not all churches agreed with this idea and some refused to advocate for the request. This suggestion, of course, started a heated debate throughout the city. Individuals did not believe that churches should be given special privileges or the right to exclude people from their “property” within the cemetery grounds. There was also a concern that churches would only be required to pay for plots as they were used, whereas individuals were required to pay up-front to reserve a plot for themselves and their families.
During the decision making process, the Constitutional newspaper opined “we would have the Cemetery free from all those things which divided the living.” By late 1856 the committee decided to reserve sections of the cemetery for religious denominations but charge the same price per plot for churches and individuals, which were sold at a rate of $2.00 each and ensuring terms of the purchase were the same across the board.
Originally the cemetery was referred to by multiple names including “Elmwood”, “Annex”, even “New Cemetery”. In honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, an official name was chosen; “Victoria Lawn Cemetery”. With this name change came new regulations that the appearance of the cemetery should reflect that of a “lawn”. Mounds of earth on top of gravesites were flattened and people were encouraged to keep plots free from obstructions such as shrubs or railings to allow for easier grounds maintenance.
Over time the cemetery has been enhanced. Multiple substantial donations allowed for the additions of gardens, trees and alterations such as ornamental gates at the main entranceway added in 1923 and in 1949 the tower and carillon. A number of enhancements have been added over the years and the City of St. Catharines continues to care for the grounds and maintain a beautiful, tranquil setting for all generations.
Victoria Lawn Cemetery is nondenominational in that it no longer has sections devoted to any religion. Sections are based on what type of burial the person prefers. As of March 17, 2017 there have been 81,225 burials.