History

Mount Auburn Consecrated

In 1831 the Massachusetts Horticultural Society purchased 72 acres of mature woodland situated in Watertown and Cambridge for the creation of a “rural cemetery” and experimental garden. On September 24, 1831, a crowd gathered in the Dell, the natural amphitheater located in the heart … Continue reading

St. James Lot, The First Public Lot, Is Created

“Not every good, nor every great man (or woman), has had a monument erected over his grave.” Wilson Flagg in 1861; Writing about unmarked graves in a Mount Auburn guide book At a November 3, 1831 meeting of the Garden … Continue reading

Boston Courier’s Account of the Consecration

The Boston Courier’s account of the public Consecration of Mount Auburn Cemetery, September 24, 1831. An unclouded sun and an atmosphere purified by the showers of the preceding night, combined to make the day one of the most delightful we … Continue reading

Mount Auburn’s Ice Age Legacy

Though its landforms have been altered by human activity, Mount Auburn’s dramatic terrain is the result of glacial activity from more than 14,000 years ago. Continue reading

Hymn Sung at Consecration

For the Consecration Ceremony for the Cemetery in 1831, Reverend John Pierpont, Unitarian minister and Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard,  wrote a new hymn just for the occasion.  The crowd of over 2,000 spectators joined him in singing it (to … Continue reading

Cemetery is named “Mount Auburn”

The seventy-two acres purchased from George Brimmer for the purpose of a cemetery was commonly known to locals and Harvard students by the name of “Sweet Auburn” after the fictitious town in Oliver Goldsmith’s 1770 poem “The Deserted Village.”  When deciding … Continue reading

Greenbrier Receiving Tomb Built

A practical need in the early years of Mount Auburn was a receiving tomb for temporary deposit of remains that awaited shipment elsewhere or could not be buried during the cold winter.  The available tools would not have been able to … Continue reading

First Interment made at Mount Auburn

On July 6, 1832 the first interment in Mount Auburn’s original 72 acres was made near the top of Mount Auburn’s peak (Lot 182 Mountain Avenue).  James and Margaret Boyd buried their stillborn son Charles in their family lot.  It … Continue reading

Stranger’s Tomb Erected

When it opened in 1829, the Tremont House was unique in the nation.  It was a hotel of many firsts, including the first to offer indoor plumbing. Wanting to be innovative in yet another way, they decided to erect a tomb … Continue reading

Harvard Hill

Within Mount Auburn Cemetery there are seven hills, a fact that at the time of Mount Auburn’s founding harkened back to the lore of ancient Rome that was so popular during the Victorian Era.  In 1833, one of Mount Auburn’s … Continue reading

Joseph Story elected first President of Mount Auburn

In 1835, four years after the founding of Mount Auburn Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story was elected the first President of the Cemetery.  He was a logical choice for the job as he had been greatly involved in the meetings … Continue reading

Rural Cemetery Movement Grows

As Mount Auburn Cemetery, the first rural cemetery in the United States, gained national and international attention, other cities began to plan their own rural cemeteries. The concept of permanent family lots in a setting of natural beauty was immensely … Continue reading

Scots’ Charitable Society Lot Purchased

In 1841, the Scots Charitable Society purchased a lot at Mount Auburn for its members. For the more than 200 people now buried here, it is the iron fence enclosing the lot that serves as their memorial. The Scots’ Charitable … Continue reading

Entrance Gate Rebuilt in Granite

In 1842 the Cemetery’s Egyptian Revival Gate, initially built in wood, was rebuilt in granite in the same architectural style. Two years later, the wooden fence running along Mount Auburn street was also replaced with a permanent iron fence.  Both … Continue reading

Construction of Chapel Begun

In 1844 Mount Auburn selected the hill overlooking Mount Auburn Street as the location for its chapel. Following a design competition to solicit plans for the building, the Cemetery’s trustees chose the anonymous design submitted by Dr. Jacob Bigelow as … Continue reading

Emily Dickinson visits Mount Auburn

A sixteen year old Emily Dickinson spent two weeks sightseeing in Boston in the fall of 1846 while staying with an aunt.  She wrote to a friend: “I have been to Mount Auburn, to the Chinese Museum, to Bunker hill.  … Continue reading

Washington Tower Constructed

A tower at the summit of Mount Auburn was proposed in 1831 and again in 1843 but construction was deferred until 1852.  Jacob Bigelow described its design and importance: “The tower is sixty-two feet in height above the summit of … Continue reading

Trustees Vote to Build Tower

At a July 6, 1852 meeting Mount Auburn President Jacob Bigelow exhibited a model he designed for a tower. The Trustees voted that the committee of Jacob Bigelow, Charles Little, and Mace Tisdale should go on and erect the Tower … Continue reading

Well House Constructed Near Entrance Gate

The 1885 edition of Moses King’s guide book, Mount Auburn Cemetery, notes that “on the left of Central Avenue, is a beautifully embellished octagonal building, with a stone platform and seats for visitors [containing] an excellent well of pure water.” … Continue reading

Development of Stone Farm

In 1854 over 18 acres of farmland known as Stone Farm (not to be confused with Stone Estate land) was acquired and held for 20 years while trees were planted and roads were laid out.  Stone Farm lay between the … Continue reading

Chapel Rebuilt and Statues Commissioned

In 1853, the Cemetery Trustees voted to take down the Chapel and rebuild it to correct the original structural deficiencies. In reconstructing the building about 200 blemished or defective stones were removed and replaced with others of proper size and character. … Continue reading

Granite Curbing Used to Edge Ponds and Ornamental Areas

“In 1855-56 the western end of Garden Pond (now Halcyon Lake) which extended nearly to the present site of Story Chapel was filled up. In the next few years granite curbings were placed around the edges of Consecration Dell Pond, … Continue reading

New Horse Railroad brings visitors to Mount Auburn’s gate

The following is an excerpt from Silent City on a Hill: Picturesque Landscapes of Memory and Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery by Blanche M. G. Linden, pgs. 252- 253. Improvements in public transit brought visitors in greater numbers.  Initially, hourly runs … Continue reading

Garden Pond begins transformation into Halcyon Lake

Early maps of Mount Auburn (such as the 1831 map section seen above) show a large three-lobed pond in the northeast corner of the Cemetery. The pond was then labeled Garden Pond, and it covered much of what is now Ash Avenue … Continue reading

Construction of tombs permitted with approval of Trustees

The following is an excerpt from Silent City on a Hill: Picturesque Landscapes of Memory and Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery by Blanche M. G. Linden. From Tombs to Mausoleums To maximize the use of all parts of the grounds and … Continue reading

Area North of Garden Pond Surveyed for Lots

“The tract of unoccupied ground in the front of the Cemetery, between Garden Pond [present day Halcyon Lake] and the road, constituting one of the most desirable parts of the Mount Auburn, is in the process of being surveyed, and the … Continue reading

Mount Auburn Memorial Published

Mount Auburn Memorial was a weekly newspaper that discussed many topics related to Mount Auburn. The first edition was published on Wednesday, June 15, 1859. The eight-page publication was produced by Mount Auburn’s gatekeeper, Truman Hopson (T.H.) Safford, and his … Continue reading

Receiving Tomb Built at Auburn Lake

Built between 1859 – 1876, demolished 1973; G. F. Bryant, architect. In 1859 a cut was made through Indian Ridge Path to run a drain between Bigelow Chapel Lawn and Auburn Lake.  A catacomb tomb was proposed along the sides … Continue reading

One Thousand Curbs Installed (1859 – 1875)

Throughout Mount Auburn’s historic core you will find ornate curbs, borders, buttresses and posts.  Over 1,000 family burial lots were enclosed in granite during the short period of 1859 – 1875.  By 1870 the ratio of enclosed lots (iron fences … Continue reading

Two Trees Planted By Prince of Wales

In 1860 the nineteen-year old Prince of Wales, Queen Victoria’s son who became King Edward VII, thrilled America with an extended visit  which included a stop at Mount Auburn Cemetery.  The Prince made his Mount Auburn stop in the late … Continue reading

Alice’s Fountain Commissioned

In November of 1862, Mrs. Mary (Augustus) Hemenway offered to pay Mount Auburn $6,000 if the Corporation would “construct a fountain opposite my lot in the low land between Thistle and Cowslip Paths equal to the fountains in the lawn, … Continue reading

First Corps of Cadets Memorial Dedicated

On November 16, 1867, the First Corps of Cadets memorial was dedicated.  At the ceremony Governor Alexander Bullock remarked, “There is something not altogether sorrowful in our assembling upon these sacred grounds…to pay the offering of our hearts to the … Continue reading

Reception House Built

Reception House, 583 Mount Auburn Street 1870 Nathaniel J. Bradlee, architect Extant with modifications The reception house was built in 1870 directly across from the main gate as part of a growing concern for visitor comfort in the mid-nineteenth century.  … Continue reading

Northwest Corner Developed

In the early 1870s the Cemetery acquired several parcels on its northwestern edge known as the Chant and Watriss properties. Up to this time the Cemetery’s edge lay at present day Excelsior Path. The Watriss property was purchased from the … Continue reading

Sphinx Donated by Dr. Jacob Bigelow

In March 1865, Bigelow first proposed that the Cemetery commission “a public monument in memory of the heroes who have fallen in the present war for the preservation of the Union.”  However, the trustees postponed making any decision.  Bigelow wanted … Continue reading

Swan House Constructed

In 1872 a Swan House was erected across from the southern end of Indian Ridge Path.  Its proximity to Auburn Lake provided suitable accommodations for waterfowl.  However, according to the Trustee Minutes of 1882, a special committee had to be … Continue reading

Freeland Mausoleum Constructed

Designed by noted Boston architects William Robert Ware and Henry Van Brunt, the Freeland mausoleum on Lawn Avenue was the first freestanding tomb constructed at the Cemetery, erected in 1874.   Ware and Van Brunt designed several other local landmarks, including … Continue reading

New Chapel and Office Building Built

A new chapel and office building were built between the years of 1896-1898.  the new chapel  holds its first funeral service in 1898. The Story Chapel and Administration Building complex was designed by architect Willard Sears and constructed of Potsdam … Continue reading

April 18, 1900: Mount Auburn’s first cremation performed

The trustees of Mount Auburn first started to consider establishing a crematorium in 1885 but awaited “the further development of public sentiment.” In 1897 the Cemetery applied to the state legislature for an act authorizing Mount Auburn Cemetery to establish a crematory. Architect … Continue reading

R. H. White Mausoleum erected in Stone Farm section

As the new Stone Farm area was laid out in the 1870’s the plans evolved from a rigid grid to a design of gently curving roads and paths.  The new plan provided for a few dramatic focal points.  The R.H. … Continue reading

Roadway Improvements for Automobiles

Automobiles, introduced into Mount Auburn in 1908, prompted a series of roadway improvements.  A steam roller and crusher were purchased the same year and the old roads were gradually replaced with a new tar macadam surface, which was far more … Continue reading

Superintendent issues permits for automobiles

After several decades of visitors arriving by carriage, omnibus, and on foot, Mount Auburn had to adapt to a new method of transportation that visitors were using. In the same way that carriage access to Mount Auburn Cemetery had to be … Continue reading

Stone Estate Acquired

In 1912 the Stone estate, located immediately to the south of Willow Pond, was acquired. This parcel lies at the corner of Coolidge Avenue and Grove Street. One of the motives of the purchase was to secure street protection, and it was … Continue reading

Mary Baker Eddy Memorial Completed

Image: March 12, 1917 – the Memorial nears completion. © The Mary Baker Eddy Collection. Used with permission. The Mary Baker Eddy monument, an anchor of the Halcyon Lake landscape, was designed by Egerton Swartwout in 1915 and completed in … Continue reading

Memorial park concept at Willow Pond designed to meet 20th-century needs

In the 20th century Mount Auburn moved into a landscape style influenced by Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale (outside of Los Angeles, CA).   Laurence Caldwell, a landscape architect active at Mount Auburn in the 1920s and 1930s wrote that older … Continue reading

Rest House Built Near South Entrance

In 1920 it was deemed necessary to build a rest house in the southern end of the Cemetery as a “Place where those visiting the cemetery can get rest and shelter and find suitable toilet facilities” (Annual Report, 1920). This small … Continue reading

Iron Fences and Granite Curbs Removed From Lots

For many years before 1922, no fences, granite curbing, or steps had been permitted on newly purchased lots.  But, throughout the Cemetery, evidence of the 19th-century trend of enclosing lots in iron fences and granite curbing remained. To simplify Cemetery maitenence and improve the … Continue reading

Willow Pond Area Developed

An additional 15 acres of land extending to Coolidge and Grove Streets were purchased in 1912. This purchase included the remainder of Willow Pond. The Cemetery anticipated that, as the parkways extended along the Charles River, this newly acquired land … Continue reading

Story Chapel Stained Glass Windows Installed

In 1929 architects Allen and Collens supervised the installation of richly colored stained glass in the windows of the nave and chancel of Story Chapel.

A Rose in Mineral Form

By Robin Hazard Ray Throughout Mount Auburn Cemetery and many other burial places in the United States, visitors come upon rough boulders of pink translucent stone bearing nameplates of bronze or slate. What are these stones, where did they come … Continue reading

Service Plant Built

The Service Plant and garages located in the Northwest Corner of the Cemetery were built in 1932, by architect Henry L. Kennedy, on the Bird lot previously occupied by the stone crushing plant. The Operations Center, as it is now … Continue reading

Oakes Ames Reinterprets Horticulture Mission

As president of Mount Auburn from 1934 – 1963 and 1967 – 1968, Oakes Ames made horticulture a high priority at the Cemetery once again.  Under Ames the horticulture infrastructure was greatly expanded in the 1930s with six new greenhouses and … Continue reading

Fourth Greenhouse is Built

In 1935, Mount Auburn built six new Lord and Burnham greenhouses on a piece of land that had been purchased Northwest of Willow Pond (between current day Meadow and Field Roads).  The greenhouses encompassed 23,200 square feet, which allowed enough space for the Cemetery … Continue reading

Executive Offices Moved to Mount Auburn Street

Until the 1930s, Mount Auburn’s executive offices were located in Boston. In 1935 the Cemetery decided to close its downtown offices and relocate all administrative functions to the recently designed building just inside its Mount Auburn Street entrance.  The Administration … Continue reading

Chapels Renamed in Honor of Founders

The “old chapel,” having never been properly named, was referred to as the “Chapel” until 1898, after which point it was then referred to as the “Crematory” or “Crematory Chapel.”  In 1936, the Cemetery’s trustees voted to name the old chapel “Bigelow Chapel” … Continue reading

Hurricane of 1938 Damages Cemetery

On September 21, 1938, the first major hurricane to hit New England since 1868 made landfall as a Category 3 storm.  The havoc that it wreaked was extensive and deadly.   It left a trail of damage that could still be seen in … Continue reading

New Columbarium built in Story Chapel

In 1941 a new columbarium was built in the basement of Story Chapel.  The design by Architect John Radford Abbott offered “a dignified and attractive resting place for cremated remains.” (Annual Report, 1941).  The first three alcoves constructed consisted of … Continue reading

The “Lawn” is Renamed

The center of Lawn Avenue, originally referred to as the “Lawn”, was developed by Alexander Wadsworth in the 1850s as an ornamental area that featured showy horticultural displays and an impressive fountain.  In the 1930s, the area was redesigned by landscape … Continue reading

Jefferson Lawn, Governor Bradford & Winthrop Lots Developed in the 1940s

Governor Bradford Lot 8299 Governor Winthrop Lot 8300 Jefferson Lawn Lot 8400 Landscape architect Arthur A. Shurcliff (Lot 6247 Orion Path) designed the Governor Bradford (1949) and Governor Winthrop (1944) lots during the 1940s. Shurcliff, best known for his work as chief landscape … Continue reading

The Meadow is developed

The Cemetery began to purchase land along Grove Street north of Willow Pond beginning in 1921 and completed acquisition of the land known as the Meadow in 1950. Although the southwest corner was not filled by that time there was … Continue reading

Mount Auburn Biographies published

In 1953 Mount Auburn Biographies by Foster W. Russell was published. “With the primary purpose of preserving a convenient record of the accomplishments of over five hundred of the more noted persons who have found lasting repose in the cemetery, … Continue reading

Alice Fountain is Redesigned

Alice Fountain, located on Spruce Avenue, was constructed in 1863 as a memorial to the daughter of Mary Porter Tileston Hemenway. Its original design included granite curbing, a tiled basin with a fountain jet. In 1959, the area was redesigned by Sidney … Continue reading

Gold Medal Awarded

In 1966 the Massachusetts Horticultural Society awarded Mount Auburn Cemetery with a Gold Medal in recognition of  “135 years of horticultural excellence.” Adapted from the 1966 Trustee Minutes

New Pump House and Wells Installed

In 1967, a badly needed upgrade was made to Mount Auburn’s aging water distribution system. Parts of the system, some laid as long ago as 1860, were beginning to fail. The first phase of the upgrade involved the construction of a large brick … Continue reading

Story Chapel Porte-Cochere Removed

The noted architect Willard T. Sears’ original 1896-1898 design of Story Chapel included an elaborate entrance “…through a large door, protected by a porte-cochere, which extends well over the driveway leading to the building from the main entrance to the … Continue reading

Fifth Greenhouse is Built

In 1971, the Cemetery demolished the existing greenhouses to make way for more burial space in conjunction with a smaller greenhouse complex.  Construction of smaller, more efficient greenhouses was started in early spring with the initial site grading.  The caretaker’s house was … Continue reading

Auburn Court Crypts Built

In 1973, the Victorian receiving tomb on Auburn Lake was demolished in order to make room for the newly commissioned Auburn Court Crypts.  The Canadian firm J.C. Milne Company designed the new crypts which were faced in rose granite and nestled … Continue reading

Demolition of Egyptian Cast-iron Perimeter Fence on Mount Auburn Street Halted Due to Public Outcry

On August 5, 1980 half of the circa 1844 cast iron fence along Mount Auburn Street was removed.  A storm of protest followed.  Objections came immediately from the Cambridge Historical Commission, SPNEA (Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities), … Continue reading

Duca Sculpture Installed

In 1981, Richard Duca’s untitled abstract sculpture of ductal iron was installed on Willow Pond Knoll between Bigelow Avenue  and Bradlee Road.  The low spiraling walls that now surround it, along with the plantings, were added by designer Julie Messervy … Continue reading

Willow Court Crypts Built

Willow Court Crypts consists of several postmodern but neoclassically inspired community crypt structures with exterior access only for entombment located on the Cemetery’s southern periphery. Sasakai Associates designed the area and J.C. Milne Company began construction in 1984. Willow Court Crypts was dedicated in … Continue reading

Friends of Mount Auburn Established

The Friends of Mount Auburn Cemetery was established in 1986 to promote the appreciation and preservation of this important cultural and natural resource. In 1990 it was designated as a non-profit educational trust. Since its founding the Friends has provided … Continue reading

Mount Auburn’s Administration Building Restored

In 1990 a major rehabilitation of the Administration Building was completed by Architect Ann Beha.  The Administration Building was designed in 1896 by Willard T. Sears in the “English Perpendicular Style.”  Over the years, it has undergone many changes  to … Continue reading

Willow Pond Relandscaped

In 1992, a major landscaping and replanting initiative developed by the Halvorson Company for the Willow Pond area was implemented to enhance the beauty of the Pond while improving habitat for birds and other wildlife.  A new irrigation system and … Continue reading

Mount Auburn Awarded Gold Medal

At the 1993 The New England Flower Show, hosted by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, the Gold Medal was awarded to William C. Clendaniel, President, “for his skill in horticulture and arboriculture, maintaining the highest standards at Mount Auburn Cemetery.”

Vesper Path Developed

The low granite curbed area on the Eastern part of Vesper Path was developed as new interment space in 1994 by Halvorson Co.  A road was removed to create memorialization around the corridor. This area is based on principles from the … Continue reading

Spruce Knoll Developed

Spruce Knoll was completed in 1996 as a woodland garden intended for those who wish to cherish the natural world while at the same time choosing a burial site that will provide perpetual beauty for the living as well as the … Continue reading

April 1 Snowstorm Causes Enormous Tree and Shrub Damage

On April 1, 1997 a cruel April Fools joke was played on the northeast region.  Twenty-five inches of heavy snow damaged and destroyed Mount Auburn’s treasured trees.  An outpouring of financial and moral support from hundreds of visitors, lot owners … Continue reading

Japanese Maples transplanted to Asa Gray Garden

After a large snowstorm in 1997, which caused the destruction of several large ornamental trees as well as damaging other trees and shrubs, Asa Gray Garden needed refurbishment.  An unexpected opportunity, seized by former Mount Auburn president Bill Clendaniel in … Continue reading

Binney Monument Designated A National Treasure

In 1999, the Binney monument, the only realized funerary sculpture by noted American sculptor Thomas Crawford ( c.1813-1857) was designated an “American Treasure” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the White House Millennium Committee chaired by Hillary Rodham Clinton.   … Continue reading

Halcyon Garden is developed

Completed in 2001, Halcyon Garden became the Mount Auburn’s newest innovative burial area.  The architectural firm of Reed Hilderbrand Associates received a Design Merit Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects in 2003 for the design of Halcyon Garden.

Cemetery Designated an Important Bird Area

In 2002, Mount Auburn lived up to its reputation as one of the premier spots to witness the spring Gulf migration when it was recognized as one of 79 Important Bird Areas (IBA) in Massachusetts by Mass Audubon.  An IBA is a site that … Continue reading

National Historic Landmark Status Granted

On May 27, 2003 Mount Auburn Cemetery was designated a National Historic Landmark by the Secretary of the Interior, recognizing its importance as one of the country’s most significant designed landscapes. “We are delighted to have received this honor,” said William … Continue reading

Preservation Services Building Constructed

In 2000, the Sawin property was purchased for the purpose of creating a new workspace for the Preservation department.  In 2003, the Preservation Services Building (PSB) was built to house the Preservation workshop, offices and an apartment for a staff person to live on … Continue reading

Nyssa Path is Developed

Nyssa Path was designed by Wellington Reiter of Urban Instruments. This contemporary memorial connects numerous historical elements found within Mount Auburn while providing a modern-day setting for the memory of loved ones.  Evoking other linear landscape installations by contemporary artists, … Continue reading

Feature Films set at Mount Auburn Cemetery

Mount Auburn Cemetery has been a setting for scenes in several recent feature films including: Gone Baby Gone (2007) Gone Baby Gone is a mystery film directed by Ben Affleck and starring Casey Affleck. It is based on the novel … Continue reading

175th Anniversary

Mount Auburn celebrated its 175th Anniversary with a year-long celebration beginning in September 2006.  Sponsored by the Friends of Mount Auburn, the yearlong 175th anniversary celebration featured public programs that highlighted the Cemetery’s cultural, historic, and natural resources.  A lecture … Continue reading

Bigelow Chapel Restored

In celebration of Mount Auburn Cemetery’s 175th anniversary, the Cemetery decided to mark its commitment as stewards of this National Historic Landmark by undertaking the rehabilitation of Bigelow Chapel. Originally constructed in 1846, the chapel is named after Jacob Bigelow, the building’s designer, … Continue reading

Gone Baby Gone scene filmed at Mount Auburn

Mount Auburn Cemetery has been a setting for scenes in several recent feature films including: Gone Baby Gone (2007) Gone Baby Gone is a mystery film directed by Ben Affleck and starring Casey Affleck. It is based on the novel … Continue reading

Washington Tower Wildflower Meadow Created

In 2007, Mount Auburn dedicated more than an acre of land surrounding Washington Tower to establish a wildflower meadow.  This project was part of a comprehensive and ongoing program of improving the natural vegetation and wildlife habitat at Mount Auburn. … Continue reading

Birch Gardens Developed

“A garden woodland weaves through the space, blending classic Mount Auburn forms and surfaces: lawns, shrubs, groves of trees, granite and water… trees herald the entrances to the space and clusters of elegant, spring-flowering amelanchier trees—used for centuries in New … Continue reading

Prince of Wales Beech Tree Removed

In 1860, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) embarked on a three month tour of North America which included a three-day stay in Boston. On Friday, October 19, the Prince visited Mount Auburn where he had the opportunity to … Continue reading

Greenhouses Turn 40 Years Old

This year (2011) our current greenhouses turned 40 years old! On-site greenhouses have long been an important part of Mount Auburn’s operations, starting at a location between Mount Auburn and Brattle Streets.  After several additions at that site, the need … Continue reading

Bowditch Statue Conserved

In 2011 Mount Auburn began conservation treatment on the statue commemorating Nathaniel Bowditch to remove corrosion and clean the bronze; fill in cracks and pits; and to repatinate the sculpture so that it matches its original historic patina. In 1847, the … Continue reading

Rose Window Restoration Begins

Historic restoration of Bigelow Chapel’s Great Rose Window began this week as part of the larger Bigelow Chapel revitalization project. Located over the entrance door to the Chapel, the large window is an important example of early stained glass in … Continue reading

Cemetery reaches 100,000 interments

In March 2017, Mount Auburn Cemetery reached the 100,000 interment milestone. In 1993 the Cemetery published a ground-breaking Master Plan to shape how the Cemetery was managed and developed.  In it was a startling revelation “If the Cemetery continues to … Continue reading

1831
2017

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. 

Beyond the Gates: A Cemetery Explorer’s Guide to the Old Burying Ground of Groton, MA

December 30, 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.

OLD BURYING GROUND | GROTON, MA (1678)

Just off the main road going through Groton’s historic town center is the Old Burying Ground, where its citizens were buried since 1678, a period from which wooden markers sadly do not survive. In 1694, twenty colonists that perished during an Abeknaki raid on Groton were also interred somewhere in the four acres of hilly, bumpy land that now hosts about three thousand mortal remains.

The earliest death date is 1704, belonging to blacksmith James Prescott (b. 1684) on a stone so repaired and small that it’s quite easy to miss. Please note that a permit is required for grave rubbings, and the uneven ground is perilous to those prone to twisted ankles.

Mary Prescott

The graveyard is, in truth, a veritable candy shop for strange kids who love gravestones. Every socioeconomic class is present in abundance, with so many different types of decoration clustered together, it can at first be difficult to know where to look. Many early examples of the Worcester family style survive, including large format stones nearly two feet tall. Indeed, many examples of tall stones endure, including a four foot tall double headstone of John and Hannah Holdin, both of whom died in 1753. This example is festooned with winged hourglasses, skulls and crossbones, and many figural hearts.

More delicate designs survive alongside their hard, menacing forebears. The stone of Joshua Richardson (1772 – 1773) shows the skillful rendering of a charming bird and willow tree, and the swag of John Sheple (1757 – 1809) bears the interestingly abbreviated inscription, “MemeoMori.”

Masonic iconography appears, as do wistful cherubim with painstakingly fine feathers that are often flanked by deep-socketed skulls and crossbones.

The gigantic stone of Colonel John Bulkley (1703 – 1772) accommodates his long epitaph, which is in good company amongst other Harvard alumni and prominent citizens. His remains rest  atop one of the graveyard’s highest points, as though placing himself above the bones of others would make him any less dead.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Z.G. Burnett is a writer and editor with a background in early American history and material culture. She has been published by The Attic on Eighth, Ivy-Style, and The Vintage Woman Magazine. Combining her passion for the paranormal and everything pink, Z.G. is currently working on her first personal style guide.

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

Beyond the Gates: A Cemetery Explorer’s Guide to Life Forest Conservation Cemetery

December 17, 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.

LIFE FOREST | HILLSBOROUGH, NH (2020)

Reader, today we have something a little different for you. Over the course of this blog series we’ve explored historic Puritan and Colonial burial grounds with stark slate tombstones as well as the sentimental garden cemeteries of the Victorian era with elegant marble monuments. Our introduction page for the blog gives a little primer on the history of New England burial grounds and their unique evolution from colonial to victorian to the 20th century. Just as Mount Auburn rose to the occasion of solving both the philosophical and logistical issues of burying the dead in the early 1800s, some new cemeteries created in the past 20 years are solving our newer problems; mainly climate change and the lack of autonomy many feel when a loved one dies. With the rise of natural burial and cremation, we are witnessing another evolution in how our mortal remains are laid to rest: conservation cemeteries, high tech urban towers of columbaria, and even entirely new processes like aquamation and recomposition. It truly is quite a time to be alive (or dead).

Today we’re exploring a cemetery that’s about as new as you can get. Life Forest Cemetery in Hillsborough, New Hampshire started burying in April of 2020 and is a new type of cemetery– a conservation cemetery that inters cremated remains beneath a tree of your choice. In short, conservation cemeteries solve a relatively new problem with new ideas: how can we protect conservation land from development? How can we fund this protection? Well, you can bury people there! The deeds of the burials are a private agreement to restrict the use/development of the land, and the money made from selling burial space goes directly to the upkeep of the land, just like a regular cemetery. But generally, these conservation cemeteries also aim to remedy a spiritual disconnection as well; how we remember our loved ones should be more than just a thought in passing in the days or years after their death. Sadly, for many, our relationship to them stops growing after their funeral. It’s clear to me upon arriving at Life Forest that this dedication to growth is the priority: whether it’s the baby tree “monuments” just out of the nursery or the evidence of visitors walking the trails leaving little stone towers–mementos to their loved ones.

Mel Bennett, one of the co-founders of Life Forest, and my tour guide for the day tells me the story of a young woman who purchased a plot at the cemetery, despite hopefully not needing to use it for many years. She brings her young daughter there to picnic, go on hikes, play in the stream–building a connection to this land where one day she will be buried. She hopes that when the day comes that she dies, her daughter will be comforted by the fond memories of her at Life Forest and that she will visit her often–filled with a heart-warming nostalgia instead of a weighty grief. Throughout the 20th century cemeteries have become delegated spaces for sadness that exist in a vacuum. They are where one visits on the worst days of one’s life and rarely at any other time. In general, cemetery visitation is at an all time low. The associations of tragedy, guilt, and grief are difficult to overcome and are the reasons why many feel so uncomfortable visiting cemeteries – Mel herself being one of those people. Could we socialize a more positive relationship with death? Can we foster cemeteries as places for living as much as for the dead? Many cultures have proven this to be possible, and at Life Forest in New Hampshire it begins with a tree. 

Mel Bennett Co-Founder of Life Forest

THE PROCESS

I know I should be practicing what I preach, but the reality is it is extremely difficult to cultivate a positive relationship with death. Even being in the business myself didn’t save me from the emotional rollercoaster that is grief. A few years ago I lost my aunt, Juliette to cancer. Our relationship had been rocky the past few years and I hadn’t spoken to her much due to a political disagreement, which appears unbelievably petty to me now–of course any dispute that ends in an unfriending on Facebook is bound to be. But for all my life we had been extremely close. She was a painter and a piano player, and was the biggest supporter of my music. She was the one who taught me how to read chords and play from my first Beatles sheet music, she was the person I would watch the Wizard of Oz twice in a row with, the person who would take me to vintage stores to model those elegant 1940s hats.  

My Aunt “Julie”

I was with her in the hospital as she was dying, which (despite the cancer) was a rather sudden and steep decline that took us by surprise. For me, first came the anger, mostly at myself. And then the deep existential sadness that comes with the loss of an artist compounded by the loss of their art. It was too much, so I did what most people do and built a wall. I’m ashamed to admit it, but writing this is the most thinking I’ve done on the topic since she died. No matter which way you cut it, being aware of unhealthy relationships with death doesn’t save you from one. That requires work. My story is not unlike the ones our clients visit us with at Mount Auburn, and it’s not unlike the ones that Mel encounters at Life Forest either.

Mel had sent me an email suggesting that we take a first person approach for the tour of Life Forest. In other words, I select a loved one that I’ve lost that I would like “buried” at Life Forest and Mel will take me through the motions that all of her families go through. Although it took a little courage, I selected my aunt Juliette who had told me she wanted a conservation burial but never received one. I sent Mel some information, and was off to New Hampshire the next day to begin the process.

THE TREE

Clients at Life Forest Cemetery start their journey by choosing a tree just like a family would choose a stone monument. Life Forest has the pleasure of partnering with Darrin and Kim Black of StoneFalls Gardens in Henniker, New Hampshire as the supplier of trees. It’s late November so the leaves and flowers are all gone, but I relish the New England woods in the fall and the beautiful architecture of all the tree branches. StoneFalls Gardens is preparing for winter, and it’s clear they take their operation as stewards of the environment very seriously. I stand with Darrin and Mel in front of three piles of dirt probably as large as my house, this is StoneFalls Gardens’ compost area. Darrin collects the compost from the community, as well as from the brush on his own grounds and uses a rotating system to age the compost and then filter it. He’s created a self-sustaining process as he’s able to grow all of his plants using his own compost that he creates every year.     

Compost Piles

I meandered around the nursery with the trio of my guides waiting at the top of the hill, patiently giving me space while I made my choice. Gentle, kind, and knowledgeable are the words that come to mind to describe the StoneFalls Gardens crew. They truly possess the demeanor required to comfort grief-stricken families, as they open up their nursery to receive individuals as they navigate this deeply emotional choice. I “selected” a dogwood tree for my aunt, I know she would appreciate the early spring flowers and could easily imagine them appearing in one of her paintings.

THE LAND

Life Forest is located on land that had been cleared by a logging company in the past and has a number of little alcoves where clients can select their locations. Life Forest land hosts a conservation easement from the Hillsborough Conservation Commission, who’s walking trails are located all around the burial area. Having just started out, Mel makes it clear to me that the landscape is still very much a work in progress. She and her co-founder John are often clearing brush, forging paths, and removing tree stumps– remnants from the loggers. 

Stone circles surround mulched saplings that dot the cleared area of Life Forest. Tiny metal markers created by a local artist denote family names and dates for each plot. Life Forest has even invented a way to inter cremated remains without jeopardizing the tree’s roots for future burials. When a plot is purchased the owners are given GPS Coordinates to the site of the grave, as well as a QR Code to an online memorial page for a lost loved one. There families can upload pictures, videos, and type stories to populate the page. This is what the cemeteries of the future will look like.

MEMENTOS

Upon hopping out of the car on Life Forest’s grounds Mel hands me a bag. Inside is a painted rock of a sunset (or sunrise) with a music staff. Mel’s daughter had painted the rock for me to honor my aunt. A small, but immensely meaningful tribute from someone who has never met me but recognizes the importance of losing someone. I place the stone on a nearby boulder that Mel says will eventually become a memory wall for visitors.

Also in the bag a locket with the Life Forest tree on it. Inside is a small scroll with sheet music of Blackbird by the Beatles.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take these broken wings and learn to fly

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Despite being brand new and navigating the uncertain waters of the pandemic, Life Forest has already demonstrated they excel at the most important part of being a cemetery-keeper: holding the space and holding the bereaved.

A big thank you to Darrin and Kim Black of StoneFalls Gardens and Mel Bennett, her wonderful family, and the rest of the Life Forest team for making me feel so welcome miles away from home.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Corinne Elicone is the Events & Outreach Coordinator at Mount Auburn Cemetery. She curates Mount Auburn’s “death positive” programming, online video content, and historic walking tours of the grounds. She is also Mount Auburn’s first female crematory operator in their near 190 year history.

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

Beyond the Gates: A Cemetery Explorer’s Guide to Walton Cemetery in Pepperell, Massachusetts

December 7, 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.

WALTON CEMETERY | PEPPERELL, MA (1746)

Next to the expanded Pepperell Cemetery is the first burial ground of Pepperell, Massachusetts, known as Walton Cemetery. North of the original Parish Meetinghouse, facing private homes from the period and the local Odd Fellows’ Lodge, it was established in 1746 with the earliest death date in 1750. Just off the main road, on a quiet day it’s possible to imagine how the town used to look, freed of telephone wires and traffic lights.

Familiar surnames such as Shattuck and the ubiquitous Blood family can be found amongst the graves, with lunette styles varying often in the same decade. The earliest graves show fearsome skulls with eye sockets bored deep, and soon ornate winged skulls give way to infant-like craniums flanked with crossbones and odd, swaddled faces. Many are ornate, bearing references to citizens who had relocated from Boston and its environs.

Andrew Kull noted the “vogue for the graphic description of accidental death” in his Collector’s Guide (1975), including Deacon David Blood, “who was struck dead in the 70th year of his age, by an overturn of his cart” in 1787. Kull did not mention or did not notice, which is easy enough to do amongst moss and deterioration, the stone of Blood’s son Jonathan. In 1763, he “received a Wound by a Cart Wheels going over him at Concord… of which he died in a few hours in the 21st year of his age.” Not an odd coincidence or uncommon occurrence for the time, but still sad.

“Here lies the Body of Jonathan Blood the Son of Deacon David and Mrs. Abigail Blood who received a Wound by a Cart Wheels going over him at Concord July 10th 1763 of which he died in a few Hours in the 21st Year of his age.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Z.G. Burnett is a writer and editor with a background in early American history and material culture. She has been published by The Attic on Eighth, Ivy-Style, and The Vintage Woman Magazine. Combining her passion for the paranormal and everything pink, Z.G. is currently working on her first personal style guide.

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