A New American Landscape

January 1, 2021

Mount Auburn Cemetery was the expression of a new idea.  

Before 1831, most Americans were buried in isolated plots or in crowded town graveyards. Mount Auburn’s founders had a new vision. They designed a tranquil, natural setting, well outside the city, to bury and commemorate the dead and to inspire and comfort the living. This principle continues to guide the Cemetery’s management and use today.  

Over time, Mount Auburn responded to changing ideas about burial, mourning, and even death itself. The Cemetery’s different landscape sections illustrate customs in American society over nearly two centuries.  

Mount Auburn’s story is broadly categorized into five distinct eras. Learning more about the development of land and the public use during these different periods will help you “read” our landscape today:

The Founding (1831)
A Bold New Vision (1830s – 1850s)
Managing the Vision (1870s – 1920s)
Meeting 20th-Century Needs (1930s – 1990s)
Mount Auburn Today (2000s – Present)

Continue reading to learn more about the evolution of this National Historic Landmark and discover some of the personal, family, and national history you can find here.

“We love to wander through a cemetery. Every monument we pass calls up a recollection.”  


Cornelia Walter, Mount Auburn Illustrated, 1847

Above: Forest Pond, engraving by James Smillie for Mount Auburn Illustrated, 1847. The pond was filled in 1918; 20th-century memorials are now found there. 

1831

THE FOUNDING

Members of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society founded Mount Auburn in 1831. The Cemetery was the first in North America to combine these features:  

★ Large scale
★ Designed landscape
★ Open to the public
★ Outside the city center
★ Permanent family lots
★ Established as a nonprofit corporation

First plan of the Cemetery, 1831. Drawn by civil engineer Alexander Wadsworth. General Henry A. S. Dearborn, president of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, laid out the avenues and paths. Dr. Jacob Bigelow, the Society’s corresponding secretary, named them for trees and other plants.    

“It seems as if Nature had formed the spot with the distinct idea of its being a resting place for her children.” 

Emily Dickinson,
letter to a friend about Mount Auburn, 1846 

The Rural Cemetery Movement

Mount Auburn offered a place of permanent rest for the deceased.  Before Mount Auburn, urban graveyards were utilitarian, crowded, unhealthy, and impermanent. Cities struggled to find room for the dead. Graves and graveyards were often moved and occasionally lost or destroyed. Mount Auburn’s concept of permanent family lots in a setting of natural beauty was immediately popular. Cities across the country began using it as a model to create their own rural cemeteries. Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn (1838) and Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati (1845) are two of many examples.  

This rural cemetery movement helped persuade cities and towns to create public gardens and parks, such as Central Park in New York City. 

“. . . the idea [of a rural cemetery] took the public mind by storm . . . does not this general interest prove that public gardens, near our large cities, would be equally successful?” 

Andrew Jackson Downing in the Horticulturist, July 1849 

Charms of Early Mount Auburn: Nature and Art in Harmony

Early visitors to Mount Auburn described the Cemetery as having an Arcadian loveliness that no other spot in America could match.  

 

View of Consecration Dell. Engraving by James Smillie, 1847. A solitary mourner sits by the grave of Martha Coffin Derby. This monument no longer exists.  

View of Binney Monument. Engraving by James Smillie, 1847. Visitors were drawn to the grave of young Emily Binney. Her monument, the image of a sleeping child by Henry Dexter, was the first life-size marble sculpture ever carved by an American in this country. In the 1930s, when the marble had deteriorated, the family removed the monument.   

 

Pilgrim Path. Engraving by James Smillie for Mount Auburn Illustrated, 1847. 

“It is hallowed ground on which we tread, and the deep, dark wood is holy.


Cornelia Walter, Mount Auburn Illustrated, 1847 

1830s – 1850s

A BOLD NEW VISION

The design of Mount Auburn Cemetery in this period reflected a romanticized view of death.  The Cemetery’s founders wanted to create a balance between nature and art. They saw it as a place to console and inspire the public and encourage a healing connection to nature.  

The early landscape of Mount Auburn retained the original natural contours of hills, valleys, and ponds. Trees covered much of the site. In this era, when few cities had public parks or museums, Mount Auburn served as a park and a “museum without walls.” 

Map of Mount Auburn, 1847. Roads and paths followed the natural contours of the land.  

Above, clockwise from top left: Gossler Lot on Yarrow Path; Oxnard Lot on Narcissus Path; Loring Lot on Oxalis Path; Appleton Lot on Woodbine Path.  All engravings by James Smillie for Mount Auburn Illustrated, 1847. Although the fences are gone, the monuments remain in place today. 

“[Mount Auburn is] a pleasure garden instead of a place of graves.” 

Fanny Kemble, actress, 1833 

Monuments Tell Stories

The monuments in Mount Auburn Cemetery tell stories by their location, size, materials, design, images, and inscriptions.  Mount Auburn was founded in an era of monument building when the new nation wanted to celebrate the past and instruct the living. The Cemetery’s monuments honored the dead through narrative and allegory, often using figures and symbols from ancient times. 

Caterpillar Transforming into a Butterfly. The popular image, used on a number of monuments, symbolized death as the transition between one form of life and another.  

Weeping Female Figures. Detail from the Magoun Monument, Fir Avenue, erected in 1851.  Mourners consoled each other with the hope that one day they would be reunited with the deceased, “all in love…one household still.”  

Hooped Snake and Winged Hourglass.  Detail from the Appleton Monument, Woodbine Path, 1834. The snake swallowing its tail symbolizes eternity, time without beginning or end. The winged hourglass reminded viewers of fleeting time.  

“Here let us erect the memorials of our love and gratitude, and our glory.” 

Joseph Story, Consecration Address, 1831 

Choosing Monuments

In this period, families controlled the design, installation, and maintenance of their own monuments.  Families looked to the past for architectural styles. Popular choices included Egyptian, Neoclassical, and Gothic models, balanced by natural surroundings and landscaping. 

Gothic. The popular architectural style, also used for homes and churches, can be seen on many imposing monuments and small gravestones throughout the Cemetery. This example is the Winchester Tomb on Narcissus Path. 

Neoclassical. European physician Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, who died in Boston in 1832, was honored by a Neoclassical monument in the form of a sarcophagus. In the late 1700s, explorers unearthed such forms from ancient Roman burials. This marble can be seen today on Central Avenue. Many similar monuments are found throughout the Cemetery.  

Egyptian. The Story monument on Narcissus Path is one of the Cemetery’s many obelisks, a popular form derived from ancient Egypt and used by the Greeks and Romans. 

Engravings from Dearborn’s Guide Through Mount Auburn by Nathaniel S. Dearborn.

“If you follow the windings of the paths you come unexpectedly upon these simple & beautiful obelisks.” 

Mary Peabody, visitor, 1834 

Monument Materials

Many kinds of building material were used. In the early decades, white marble was the most popular.  The Cemetery’s monuments, gravestones, statues, tombs, crypts, and borders were constructed from marble, limestone, brownstone, granite, cast iron, bronze, and some slate.  

Monument materials weather over time. Mold, lichens, and algae change the appearance of the stones. Marble and limestone dissolve in acid rain and snow. Brownstone and slate may peel apart in layers. Granite is the most durable. 

When you visit, look, but please do not touch the monuments. Many are very fragile!  

MARBLE:

BROWNSTONE (SANDSTONE):

GRANITE:


Enclosing the Family Lot  

In the early 19th century, owners embellished family lots with fences, curbs, and plantings.  Mount Auburn’s original bylaws gave families ownership of individual lots with responsibility to care for them and define their boundaries. First with cast iron fences, then granite curbs, lot owners installed thousands of borders that turned the Cemetery into a kind of patchwork quilt. The result was unsightly clutter.  

By the mid-1870s, new aesthetic ideas called for maintenance by a professional staff. Mount Auburn prohibited lot enclosures in new areas and removed them from older ones. 

Lots near the Entrance, looking toward Central Avenue, 1870s.  By the 1870s, the older parts of the Cemetery were filled with fences, curbing, and monuments, losing the picturesque qualities of the early Cemetery and creating huge maintenance problems. 

George Jones lot on Central Avenue, 1870s. Many owners embellished family lots with furniture, vases, and art. 

Howland Lot on Elm Avenue, 1870s.  In the brief period of 1860-1875, more than 1,000 granite borders or curbings were added to enclose family lots. 

View from the Tower, looking north, 1870s 


A Place of Inspiration: A Place of repose, a place for heroes, a place for the living 

The founders of Mount Auburn Cemetery believed the dead could inspire the living through their character, past achievements, or public service. For mourners and other visitors, Mount Auburn was intended to be peaceful and uplifting. Nineteenth­-century guidebooks promoted the quiet beauty of the Cemetery. 

View of Bowditch Monument.  Engraving by James Smillie, 1847.  The life-size bronze statue of Nathaniel Bowditch (1773-1838) was erected by public subscription. Bowditch prepared The New American Practical Navigator, a manual used by every New England ship master of his time. It is still in use today. 

The Monument to Channing. Engraving by James Smillie for Mount Auburn Illustrated, 1847. The monument to the great Unitarian leader William Ellery Channing (1780 – 1842) honored him for his eloquence and courage and for advancing the cause of truth, religion, and human freedom. 

Guidebooks. Several publishers produced guidebooks about Mount Auburn Cemetery from the 1830s through the 1880s. This is one of many editions of a popular guide that included a map of the Cemetery and descriptions of individual monuments. 

“And here the admiring youth shall come to seek some relic of the great and good-whose fame shall gather greenness from the hand of Time.”  

Lydia Sigourney, 1840s 

1870s-1920s

MANAGING THE VISION

In the decades after the Civil War, ideas about death and burial grew less sentimental.  Mount Auburn reflected this trend. The earlier emphasis on balancing art and nature shifted to greater simplicity, economy, and uniformity in the Cemetery’s appearance.  

Starting in the 1870s, a professional staff began developing the former Stone Farm to the south of Washington Tower as a “landscape lawn.” Family lots shared grassy lawns accented by a few prominent points of interest. The Cemetery also began regulating memorials. The result was an open, park-like landscape. 

Plan of Mount Auburn Cemetery, 1854. The Cemetery purchased the Stone Farm area of about 20 acres in 1854 and began developing it for use in the 1870s. Other areas were also developed in the “landscape lawn” style. 

View to Washington Tower from the Stone Farm Area, 1893 from Mount Auburn Cemetery, Boston, a promotional souvenir album. In the new plan, no fences, curbs, or hedges enclosing lots were permitted.

South Gate on Coolidge Avenue, ca.1900. The South Gate, built in 1875, provided an entrance to the new Stone Farm area. The gate was removed in the 1920s. 

View from Washington Tower to the Stone farm Area, 1957. Photograph by Arthur C. Haskell. Carefully located ornamental trees and flowering shrubs added color contrasts to the lawn.

Stone Farm Area, 1957. Photograph by Arthur C. Haskell. Lot owners could erect one central monument, but all individual headstones had to be lower than 2.5 feet. 

“The general effect of grassy lawns … is gratifying to the eye … it is the aim of the Trustees to introduce the features of the landscape lawn as far as possible.”  

Israel M Spelman, President, Mount Auburn Cemetery, Annual Report, 1892 

Unifying the Landscape

The Stone Farm area was planned for carriage drives rather than strolling visitors.  As part of the design for this area, gently curving roads and paths emphasized focal points in the landscape. Mount Auburn leveled the ground and filled in wetlands in Stone Farm before laying out family lots. 

Plan of Mount Auburn, 1874. Superintendents Charles Folsom (1870-1873) and James W. Lovering (1873-1895) recommended a plan that avoided straight lines, emphasized curving avenues, and eliminated hills and hollows. 

” … follow as easily as practicable, the natural ‘lay of the land’ so that a carriage will meet no abrupt hills or hollows but have a smooth and easy grade.”  

Col. Charles W Folsom, Superintendent,
on the design for Stone Farm, May 9, 1871 

Professional Management

This period marked the start of the high-level, professional management and maintenance still offered by Mount Auburn Cemetery today.  By the 1870s, many families no longer cared for their own lots or designed monuments and landscaping. The Cemetery’s expanding size, the expense of maintaining it, and the disrepair of neglected family plots required Mount Auburn to introduce professional management.  

Mount Auburn pioneered perpetual care contracts for burial lots in the 1870s. After 1876, all sales of interment space included guaranteed care of the turf by the Cemetery. Endowment payments were also sought to provide for perpetual maintenance of the lots in older sections and the care for monuments and tombs. 

Tending Flower Beds, ca. 1870s. Crews of gardeners maintained the ornamental plantings created by the Cemetery. Mount Auburn first encouraged, then required, lot owners to have all work on their family lots done by the Cemetery’s own staff.

Asa Gray Garden, 1883. Illustration from a souvenir album. Initiated in the 1860s, this ornamental garden near the Mount Auburn Street entrance grew more elaborate with labor-intensive plantings, demonstrating the horticultural skills of the Cemetery’s staff. 

Alice’s Fountain, 1883. Illustration from a souvenir album. This popular ornamental area, a gift from a private donor in memory of her daughter, also reflected the high standards of care offered at the Cemetery. 


Modifying the Landscape

As Mount Auburn took control of landscaping and maintenance, it changed the landscape throughout the Cemetery to reflect new ideas and needs.  The new professional staff under the direction of the Trustees of the Cemetery initiated complex projects: hilltops were leveled, wetlands filled, and ornamental display gardens created and improved. Memorials were regulated and made more uniform. The Cemetery required that all monuments be placed on foundations constructed by its own staff.  

The Cemetery made improvements such as grading and paving avenues and paths. The ornamental garden areas created in the 1860s in the older sections now received expert care from Mount Auburn’s expanding staff. 

Paving Poplar Avenue, ca. 1910. Miles of pavement were laid in the early 20th century by the Cemetery’s own staff working under new generations of professional management. 


Cremation

Growing acceptance of cremation reflects changing American ideas about death. Cremation, the burning of the dead body, is an age­-old and widespread practice, but it was rare in the United States until the late 1800s. Religious opposition to cremation waned and scientific interest grew. Cemeteries such as Mount Auburn began to encourage cremation. In 1900, Mount Auburn renovated its historic Bigelow Chapel to accommodate the first crematory located in a Massachusetts cemetery. 

The Crematory Chapel, 1900. The first Cremation took place on April 1, 1900.

Bigelow Chapel Columbarium, 1920s. Beginning in 1908, Mount Auburn built niches for the permanent placement of cremated remains.

Bigelow Chapel Interior, 1920s. Increasing use of the Chapel for services inspired the complete reconstruction of the interior and entrance in 1924.

Below: Bigelow Chapel, then and now. A basement built under the Chapel housed the first crematory. This basement crematory was replaced in 1969 with a crematory on the western side of the Chapel.  A new glass and steel addition, housing a modern crematory and additional public gathering spaces, was completed in 2019.

“In this country, the movement for cremation is very largely among the comfortable classes, who chose this method for themselves.” 

-The Boston Daily Globe on the opening of the crematory, 1900 

1930s – 1990s

MEETING 2Oth-CENTURY NEEDS

The modern concept of a memorial park reflects 20th-century changes in attitudes about death and in our society itself.  American society became more secular and families smaller. Members were less likely to live, die, and be buried together. The public wanted interment spaces for one or two graves, not complete family lots.  

Mount Auburn responded by developing Willow Pond, an area that resembles a public park. No above-ground memorials are allowed. Instead of grand monuments to families or individuals, the area features wide expanses of lawn and gardens, grave markers flush with the ground, and works of art commissioned by the Cemetery. 

Plan of Mount Auburn Cemetery, 1915. The Willow Pond area, shown as undeveloped space on this map, was purchased in 1912 and developed for use beginning in the 1930s. This remains an “active burial” area today.

View of Willow Pond, 1950s. A few wide avenues provide access for visitors arriving by car, but the emphasis on its views of lawns, plantings, and reflections on water.  Willows, trees that had been growing in the area for decades, were cultivated around the pond, creating the central feature. 

“The design…of the modern cemetery [is] to develop a cemetery that one would wish to visit as a beautiful park…” 

Laurence Caldwell, landscape architect, 1935 

20th-Century Memorials

Markers flush with the ground are personal expressions, seen and read only by standing next to them.  They are often reflections of beliefs held by the deceased and their families. After the introduction of markers flush with the ground in the Willow Pond area, the use of these lawn markers spread to other parts of the Cemetery.  

In the 20th century, the Cemetery, not individual owners, created focal points with commemorative art. At Willow Pond Knoll, the sculpture garden and the view itself create a shared memorial. 

Lawn Markers at Willow Pond, 1969. On the sloping lawn, markers flush with the ground are visible but the area has a park-like appearance. 

Meadow Sections, 1969. In the areas west of Willow Pond developed in the 1950s, uniform upright memorials, lawn markers, and plantings create the look of small, private gardens. 

Willow Pond Knoll, 1981. In the early 1980s, Mount Auburn selected Massachusetts sculptor Richard Duca to design a sculpture for the Willow Pond Knoll. The Cemetery added an inscription wall and garden designed by Julie Moir Messervy in 1995. 


The Cemetery as Arboretum

Since its founding in 1831, Mount Auburn has preserved the mature trees on its grounds. In the 1930s, Mount Auburn President Oakes Ames brought a renewed focus to preserving and improving Mount Auburn’s collection of trees. Today the Cemetery has more than 5,000 trees representing 630 taxa in its collection. Many specimens are native to the area while others are fine examples of species from around the world. 

 

Above: Trees of Mount Auburn, 1940s. Photographs by Arthur C. Haskell.

 

Above: Trees of Mount Auburn, 1970s. Photographs by Alan Chesney.

“It is hoped that eventually all of the more desirable species of trees that thrive in this climate will be represented at Mount Auburn, thereby carrying out the original plans of the founders.” 

Oakes Ames, President, Mount Auburn, Annual Report, 1939

2000s – Present

MOUNT AUBURN TODAY

Mount Auburn’s mission today remains the same as on the day of its founding: to offer a dignified, beautiful, and tranquil setting for the burial and commemoration of the dead and give comfort and inspiration to the living.  

In 1993, Mount Auburn developed a master plan to guide its work. It calls for the preservation and enhancement of the Cemetery’s natural and cultural resources while continuing to provide cemetery services to clients and interpretation to visitors. Mount Auburn continues to carry out its diverse responsibilities as a nonprofit cemetery, museum and sculpture garden, arboretum, wildlife sanctuary, and historic site.  

Consecration Dell. In 1997 the Cemetery began an ambitious project to return Consecration Dell to a naturalistic woodland. Today the landscape, with new native plantings, is maintained as the last vestige of the early rural cemetery and an important habitat for urban wildlife.

Spruce Knoll. With the rising acceptance of cremation, Mount Auburn has created new burial gardens like this woodland setting designed by Julie Moir Messervy where cremated remains are buried to become part of the ecology.

Memorial to Amos Binney. Mount Auburn’s holistic approach to preservation considers the landscape’s built and natural elements. Careful conservation of the marble Binney memorial by sculptor Thomas Crawford was followed with the installation of low maintenance and historically appropriate groundcovers.

Asa Gray Garden. The revitalization of the Cemetery’s Entrance area is currently underway. Recent updates to Bigelow Chapel (seen in the background) and Asa Gray Garden carefully consider the past while preparing Mount Auburn for a third century of active use.

Visitors. Mount Auburn welcomes 200,000 visitors each year who come to visit graves, connect with nature, and seek comfort and inspiration.

“Preservation and enhancement of the landscape will take precedence in cemetery development. Natural beauty, diversity, spaciousness, and the integration of natural features and monuments are key design elements.” 

Mount Auburn Cemetery Master Plan Principles, 1993 

Acknowledgements

This online exhibit is an adaptation of the permanent exhibit “Mount Auburn: A New American Landscape” created for our Visitors Center. Funding for the exhibit was provided by:

Anthony J. and Mildred D. Ruggiero Memorial Trust

and Generous donations to the Friends of Mount Auburn Cemetery from members, donors, and Corporate sponsors.


To ensure that the Cemetery endures for future generations, we invite everyone to support the Friends of Mount Auburn. 

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