Beyond the Gates: A Cemetery Explorer’s Guide to the Shaker Cemetery Harvard, MA

October 29, 2020

Beyond the Gates: A Cemetery Explorer’s Guide is a blog hosted by The Friends of Mount Auburn Cemetery written and researched by Corinne Elicone and Zoë G. Burnett. Our intention for this blog is to rediscover the out of the way and obscure graveyards that surround us, as well as to uncover new histories among the more well-trod grounds of prominent burial places. With this blog as a guide, visitors can experience cemeteries in a new way. As important landmarks of cultural heritage, our hope is that interest in these quiet places will help to preserve and educate us about our past and, ultimately, everyone’s shared future.

THE HARVARD SHAKER “LOLLIPOP” CEMETERY | HARVARD, MA (1791)

The Shakers, as we know them today, were self-described members of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing founded in 1747 in England. The name “Shaker” actually began as a rather derogatory term bestowed upon them from outsiders who were disturbed by their strange “dancing” rituals and referred to them as the “Shaking Quakers”. In the 1840’s the Harvard Shakers created a dancing space at the top of Holy Hill (now a walking trail) and perform their worship, which included dancing, and symbolic bathing and feasting. The Shakers were extremely progressive on matters of gender equality for their time. From the very beginning, women took on spiritual authority alongside men, and were even the founding leaders of the sect such as Mother Ann Lee, who led the first group of Shakers to America during the revolution. In their communities, Shakers practiced celibacy, pacifism, a communal lifestyle, equality of the sexes, and simple living with an emphasis on technological innovation.

Just around the corner from the Harvard Shaker Cemetery you can visit the historic Shaker Village with original structures still standing. Now inhabited by regular homeowners, the historic shaker village was a small farming community organized into four “families”. The Shakers did not recognize biological familial relationships, meaning that when one joined the Shakers one’s mother and father, sisters and brothers would no longer be considered as such. Instead, the community was divided into four families, “North”, “East”, “South”, and “Church” which had their own dormitories, still standing in the Shaker Village. The “Church” family consisted of the Elders and Eldresses, who acted as the leaders of the group.

By the early 20th century, The Harvard Shaker community was dwindling. Previously, 200 strong, the Shaker Village only had a handful of inhabitants left. In 1917, the community decided it was necessary to sell the buildings in the Harvard community and move to a new Shaker community in Mt. Lebanon, New York. One of the Harvard Shaker buildings was sold to Clara Endicott Sears who is buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Sears moved to Fruitlands and established a museum there. It is currently the only Shaker building in Harvard that is open to the public.

Upon arriving at The Shaker Cemetery you will notice an extremely uniform and organized system of burial in place. Unlike many of the other burial grounds at the time, the Shakers were meticulous in their planning of the cemetery. Organized into two blocks with a promenade down the middle, the (over 330) burials are organized by row and column and have been scrupulously catalogued by members of Historic Harvard.

The Promenade dividing the two sides of the cemetery

The other, most prominent detail you will notice upon arriving at the cemetery is the extremely unique monuments to the dead. These peculiar shapes have lovingly been dubbed “Lollipop” tombstones because of the thin post and rounded top that juts out of the landscape. The “Lollipops” are made of cast iron and were recently restored by the Harvard Historical Commission. Cast iron, as a material, rusts easily and does not generally fare well in New England weather without maintenance.

Curiously, the “Lollipop” tombstones were not the first grave markers erected in the cemetery. When the cemetery was founded in 1791 and up until 1879 there were simple slate or marble tombstones to mark the graves of the Shakers. However in 1879, the Shaker community of Harvard decided to replace these slate markers with the unique cast iron monuments we see today, although some original markers do still stand–some in disrepair.

I was originally drawn to Ms. Crouch because I was enchanted by her first name: Mehitabel, nicknamed “Hette”, which I absolutely adore as a name–but little did I know the great story behind it. Mehitabel Crouch was one of the few children raised in the Shaker community in the early days of it’s migration to the United States. Since the Shakers were celibate they relied solely on newcomers to grow their ranks and thus children and babies were not as common. She along with nine other young children were raised in the “Church” family and were by all accounts dedicated and pious Shakers. However, by the time the children turned 20 only two of the original nine remained Shakers. Mehetibel was the last of the handful that “went away” (a Shaker phrase referring to leaving the faith) to see the world. Spending only one year away from the Shakers in the real world, Mehetibel had certainly had enough. She went back to the Shakers and resumed her old way of life, dying as a Shaker in 1821 at the age of 41.  

A big thank you to Margaret Green, Roben Campbell, and Melanie Clifton-Harvey for their time, research, and expertise on all things Harvard Shaker.

If you are a representative of a cemetery or a cemetery historian and would like to see your cemetery featured in this blog please email Corinne Elicone at celicone@mountauburn.org

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