The City of Oshawa roughly has a population of 170,000, so it may be surprising to many there is only one active cemetery in the municipality.
Union Cemetery sits at 760 King St. W., close to the city’s border with the Town of Whitby.
While it is far from the only cemetery in the city, it is the only space where burials are still taking place.
It’s a connection between the pioneer days of Ontario County and the current urban municipalities that now surround it.
According to local historians, the oldest section of Union Cemetery began around a brick church, founded by Rev. Robert H. Thornton, a pastor with St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church of the United Church of Canada.
Over the years, it became clear the burial ground located around the church was becoming inadequate.
According to Historical Oshawa, Vol. I to III by the Oshawa Community Museum, Robert and Euphemia Spears presented the original land to the Presbyterian congregation in Whitby in 1848.
The Presbyterian communities in Oshawa and Whitby both used the cemetery.
In 1875, the Oshawa Union Cemetery Company was established to oversee the cemetery’s operations.
The newly formed company decided against moving the cemetery to another location and quickly bought up the surrounding land.
It was decided the new cemetery would be a “union” burial ground for both communities in Oshawa and Whitby.
Landscape architect H.A. Englehardt took on the task of planning the new cemetery.
Over the next 40 or so years, Union Cemetery was used at length by both communities.
But in 1922, the cemetery became the property of the city through the efforts of George W. McLaughlin, who was the vice-president of the General Motors of Canada and its predecessors, the McLaughlin Car Company and Chevrolet Motor Company.
George was the son of Robert McLaughlin, founder of the McLaughlin Carriage Company.
McLaughlin had purchased shares previously held by William H. Thomas and the Ontario Loan & Savings Co.
McLaughlin then presented the property as a gift to the City of Oshawa, and also secured the title deeds to the former Presbyterian Cemetery.
The land donated by McLaughlin amounted to about 30 acres.
McLaughlin also donated $500 to create plots for deceased veterans from the First World War.
According to a 1927 article from The Oshawa Reformer, the continuing upkeep of the cemetery came through a trust fund which drew a percentage of the purchase of each grave, which was then set aside for the upkeep of graves, memorials, and the beautification of the cemetery.
In 1924, the cemetery’s mausoleum was built. It provides vaults for above-ground interment, both for individuals and groups.
“It has a central chapel through the stained glass window of which the sun’s light falls in a colourful benediction. The basement of the mausoleum is the cemetery’s receiving vault for winter funerals,” the Reformer article continues.
According to the City of Oshawa, many of the area’s pioneers and their children rest in Union Cemetery, including Col R.S. McLaughlin, artist Florence Helena McGillivray, and the Pedlar family, founders of the Pedlar People Ltd. company, one of the city’s largest employers until 1982.
From its humble beginnings, Union Cemetery has grown to 32 acres in size with more than 25,000 burial locations.
According to a report presented to the city’s community services committee in 2019, Oshawa staff believe there is enough space at the cemetery to last until 2050.
There are about 100 internments at Union Cemetery annually.
While not active, the City of Oshawa has eight other pioneer cemeteries to maintain.
One of the most notable sits at the edges of Lake Ontario.
According to Lisa Terech of The Oshawa Museum, The Port Oshawa Pioneer Cemetery, located on Bonnie Brae Point, is the final resting place for some of Oshawa’s earliest settlers. This cemetery was originally located on the east side of the Oshawa Harbour. In 1975, harbour expansion plans threatened the cemetery, and it needed to move.
This decision was controversial and resulted in a court battle between the cemetery board and the Harbour Commission. The two parties reached a compromise that saw the Harbour Commission paying the cost to move the cemetery to a new location on Bonnie Brae Point.
In a 2009 column for The Express, Terech explains the remains of 195 people, as well as 60 grave markers, were moved to their new location by the Riverside Cemetery Company of Weston, Ont.
Unfortunately, a huge fire destroyed the records for the cemetery, making it a challenge to be sure of the names of people buried there.
As for Union Cemetery, every year Oshawa residents get the opportunity to see and learn about its history through “Scenes From The Cemetery.”
Presented by the Oshawa Museum in collaboration with the cemetery staff and Oshawa Little Theatre, the event features one-and-half hour tours with actors bringing stories to life, portraying memorial figures from Oshawa’s past.
For those interested in researching family history or just history buffs, the city has launched a new navigation tool. The interactive map allows aspiring historians to search by family name, gravesite, and funeral dates.
For more information, visit www.oshawa.ca/residents/union-cemetery-services.asp
To learn about sales of plots, niches, monuments and markers, transfer of internment rights, memorial trees and benches, or guided tours of Union Cemetery for groups and schools, visit oshawa.ca/residents/union-cemetery-services.asp or visit during business hours, Monday to Friday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., at 760 King St. W.