Willan's grave, Toronto

Willan’s grave

Sometimes I receive correspondence from people in far off places wanting to learn about Healey Willan, our great 20th-century Canadian composer. It’s because I was music director at the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene for a short time, and I’ve done some Willan research in the Library and Archives Canada, delivering some academic papers and performing lots of his choral music.

Last week one such visitor came to me from San Diego California. We had done the usual round of Willan sites, visiting churches and talking to people who knew Willan well. But when my guest suggested we visit the gravesite, I had to admit that I had never seen it. People I asked for help on this, who would be likely to know, also said they had never seen Willan’s final resting place.

So I suppose I write this blog for any of you fans of Healey Willan out there who would like to track down his gravesite. Let me warn you to have good walking shoes on, and to go forth with patience.

We walked out into deepest darkest Mount Pleasant Cemetery in uptown Toronto. It’s actually a beautiful place to walk. We were on the TTC, so got off at Davisville subway and walked up a flight of stairs by the Beltline trail to the cemetery entrance. We noted many interesting variety of trees, and a plethora of squirrels and chipmunks, which kept camera shutters clicking.

We passed magnificent tombstones and mausoleums towering like castles, adorned with angels or urns with craftily carved drapery and mourning cherubs; massive testaments to the great families who built Toronto.

But Willan’s grave was elusive. Surely our beloved ‘Dean of Canadian composers’ would have a headstone comparable to these captains of industry?

I telephoned the Mount Pleasant Cemetery office on my trusty cellphone in the nick of time, just before they closed at 5:00pm. The very polite and helpful staff told me where I would find Willan: section # 51, plot 93.


My colleague and I were over-confident. We thought we had found the right section but we had misread the map, so we spent quite a long time looking down at the ground and getting our feet soaking wet in the damp grass.

We finally realized our mistake. We needed to cross over Mount Pleasant road and go into the very eastern-most portion of the cemetery, very near to Bayview Avenue to find section 51. If you retrace our steps, you will come across a sundial surrounded by flowerbeds, and Willan’s grave is just a bit southwest of that sundial.

Even so, after finding the proper section, we looked for a very long time before finding plot 93 which is a very, very, extremely modest plaque in the ground with the ‘Willan’ name, and then both Gladys and Healey’s names engraved.

So I wish you the best if you too want to take on this very Toronto quest.

shadow on Willans grave

Shadow on Willans grave

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