Why Michael Enright does some of his best thinking in cemeteries

This is part of a series of columns by Michael Enright, reflecting his more than 50 years as a journalist and CBC broadcaster covering Canadian and global news events.

Two or three times a week, if the weather is clement and the world leaves me alone for a few minutes, I sit down on a weather-beaten, wooden bench and think about Ernest Lilienstein.

I have never met Ernest Lilienstein. I know nothing about him or his family, nothing beyond his name. Elevator bench sits on a small rise in a corner of Toronto’s largest cemetery, Mount Pleasant. It was placed there by his family after Ernest died in 1998.

I go to the bench in the cemetery because it is quiet and restful to sit there. It is a still point in the turning world, and allows me time and a place to think. I’ve done some of my best thinking in cemeteries like this over the years.

A panoramic view of Mount Pleasant Cemetery from the Ernest Lilienstein bench. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

Cemeteries are an amazing point in the human narrative. They tell stories. They house, if that’s the correct word, the mighty and the modest. The tombstones range from the garish to the simple, from pillared mausoleums to small brass plaques embedded in the soft ground.

The burial grounds mark tragedies, great and small. In one part of Mount Pleasant, a plinth memorializes 167 Salvation Army members who died when the Empress of Ireland sank near the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in 1914. Another stone pillar recalls the crash of Air Canada Flight 621 near Toronto in July 1970, which killed all 109 people on board. Every grave marker speaks to us of individual tragedy.

This plinth at the Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto is dedicated to 167 Salvation Army members who died when the Empress of Ireland sank near the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in 1914. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

Every cemetery is a kind of community within the surrounding city. In the warm months, cemeteries take on the character of parks. Relatives bring food to celebrate their loved one’s birthday. Mourners spend hours tending or replanting graveside gardens. There is a general bustle of cyclists and walkers. In the winter, the fallen snow emphasizes the quiet.

Although we often deny the inevitability of death, in its aftermath we strive to memorialize the dead.

City cemeteries are models of quietude. In Mount Pleasant, the silence is broken only by a distant siren or a passing jet making a final approach to Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. The quiet conjures — in the Shakespearean sense — death as sleep. Words and phrases like peace, tranquility and eternal rest hover in the silent air.

Tracing roots

Several years ago, I traveled to the village of Ballylongford, West Kerry, Ireland — the place of my father’s ancestors. It has a string of pubs and is famous as the site of some of the fiercest fighting during the Irish Civil War, in 1921 and 1922.

There are 287 Enrights listed in the town phone book. While I was there, I attended the funeral of one Minnie Enright (no relation), a popular Ballylongford nurse. In a nearby graveyard, I found the tombstones of six Michael Enrights. Many of my father’s ancestors emigrated to Canada at the height of the Irish famine in 1847.

The graves of Enright family members at Lislaughtin Friary in Ballylongford. (Helen Lane/Ballylongford Snaps)

Settling in Toronto, they became bakers, waiters, butchers, construction workers. And when they died, they were likely buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery, then north of the city. Today, St. Michael’s sits on four hectares behind a row of shops, including a hardware store, near the corner of St. Clair and Yonge streets. Its 29,000 graves are surrounded by condominiums and high-rise office towers.

In one of the graves is my great uncle Michael, for whom I’m named. He was 19 when he drowned while rowing on the Don River. The somewhat disquieting headline in the Toronto Star of July 1896 reads “Michael Enright Is No More.”

Reminders to the living

There is a refreshing order to things in the way cemeteries are kept. The great lawns are trimmed, watered and groomed on a regular basis. The Cambridge American Cemetery in England is as crisp and precise as the starched uniform of a soldier on parade. The same is true of Arlington National Cemetery just outside Washington, DC

Junior Cadets walk through the Cambridge American Cemetery in Madingley, United Kingdom. The American Cemetery at Madingley is the only American Second World War burial ground in England, and is the resting place of 3,812 American military personnel who died in the Battle of the Atlantic. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard argued that life must be lived forward but can only be understood backwards. Cemeteries give a hint to the truth of that, and at the same time warn visitors of the impermanence of human life.

I guess that’s what cemeteries do for a living. They remind us of those who went before us. I ponder these and other things as I sit on my favorite bench.

The rusted plaque reads in full: “This bench honors the memory of our dear husband and father Ernest Lilienstein 1925-1998. We miss you and love you.”

A memorial plaque reads
A plaque on the bench dedicated to Ernest Lilienstein in Mount Pleasant cemetery. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

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