Offering havens of tranquility and quiet contemplation, cemeteries form an integral part of the Montréal landscape. They speak volumes about urban development and the history of the communities who have inhabited and continue to inhabit our city. One only needs to think of the Joseph Guibord affair: member of the Institut Canadien (condemned by the Catholic clergy) who was refused the right to be buried in a Catholic cemetery by the Bishop of Montréal, Ignace Bourget. While it seems like nothing more than an anecdote, it reflects the tensions that existed between the liberals and the ultramontanes in the 20th century. But let’s start from the beginning.
Since the city of Montréal was founded, its citizens have wondered where to bury their dead. Many factors influenced the places that were chosen for graveyards, which varied over the course of the years (religious affiliation, geological constraints, public health considerations, etc.). Montréal’s first cemetery was located inside the walls of the city’s fortifications, at the point we now know as Pointe-à-Callières. Used from 1643 to 1654, its remains are still conserved at the Pointe-à-Callière Museum. Archeological digs have also pointed to the fact that the cemetery might not only have been a site for burials but a place for social gatherings. Many pieces of pottery and glass have been discovered there. But, due to flooding, the cemetery had to be moved twice. A few cemeteries were built inside and outside of the walls during the second half of the 17th century and during the 18th century up until 1799 when burying remains inside of the walls was prohibited for sanitary reasons. At the time, it was believed that disease became airborne after someone’s death.
Following this, the religious communities began building their own cemeteries outside of the city walls: the Cimetière Saint-Antoine (today Square Dorchester) for the Catholics, the cemetery on the corner of Peel Street and De La Gauchetière Street for the Jews as well as one where the current Guy-Favreau Complex is located and two others at the entrance to the Jacques Cartier Bridge for the Protestants. Situated in what was once the Montréal countryside, they were the predecessors to the cemeteries that would be built on Mount Royal. Notre-Dame des Neiges cemetery and Mount Royal cemetery would become veritable cemeteries/gardens that would act as parks until Mount Royal Park was created in 1876. The landscapers responsible for the Mount Royal cemetery drew their inspiration from rural English and American cemeteries that were built in the Romantic style: lush, winding and picturesque spaces that provided oases of peace that were lovely for strolling. Even today, when we go for a walk on Mount Royal, we can feel this lasting impression and influence on us.