“World’s Greatest Cemeteries” – A Conversation with the Filmmaker
Mount Auburn is one of the featured sites in the new series “World’s Greatest Cemeteries,” coming to the Boston area on Sundays at 11:30 am on GBH 2, starting April 17th, 2022. Learn more about the series from producer and host Roberto Mighty – our first Artist-in-Residence back in 2014 – and mark your calendars for the series premiere!
In your series you focus on so many different aspects of cemeteries, from horticulture to preservation to personal stories. I love your notion that cemeteries are a way for previous generations to share important messages. Can you elaborate on that?
This is a great question. First of all, the bereaved choose cemeteries based on location, landscape, who else is interred there, plantings, price, and so on. I believe that is the first message: “Our loved one belongs in this place, not that place.” Furthermore, when we visit diverse cemeteries in many places, we start to notice significant attributes. For example, some of the funerary iconography at London’s Highgate Cemetery is similar to what can be found at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. German-American “Tree Stone” markers in Ohio are carved with elaborate shapes and biblical allusions. Pre-colonial, Puritan inspired “death’s head” carvings at Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery eschew Christian symbols, although the deceased were surely of a Protestant faith. Jewish grave markers may incorporate Hebrew language and symbols. Some of the Armenian gravestones at Hollywood Forever Cemetery include etched photographic images of the interred. Finally, there isn’t much room on the headstones, markers, and monuments for text. So families carefully consider what is written or depicted there in symbols – perhaps who this person was related to, their religion, some notable accomplishment, and so on. These are just a few examples of messaging from the past.
How did you choose the stories to highlight at each cemetery?
I’ll give you a few examples. First of all, I look for classic story structure, in Aristotelian terms. A good narrative has to have peaks and valleys, and, ideally, three acts. “She was a kind woman and everyone loved her” is not as engaging as “1. She was born in difficult circumstances 2. She faced hardships. 3. She finally triumphed in the end.” I’m committed to stories about people who were outsiders in their day, but still managed to make amazing contributions. A great example of this is Dorothea Dix, a mental health crusader who was largely responsible for the development of the American insane asylum movement. She was also the U.S.’ first Superintendent of Nurses during the Civil War. She is buried at Mount Auburn. Another story type is “Wow, I never knew that!” For instance, I found out that Alexandre Dumas, the legendary French author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, was the grandson of an enslaved Haitian woman. He’s interred at The Panthéon, a spectacular mausoleum in Paris. I also look for “celebrities” likely to be known to PBS viewers, like Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, who is interred at Highgate Cemetery in London.
What are some of the differences between the cemeteries that you profile? How are they reflective of their geographic region?
Landscape was at the heart of my MFA studies and my artist residency at Harvard Forest (2010-2011). Looking at the work of 17th-century Qing Dynasty painters, 19th-century French Impressionists and 20th-century Ansel Adams photographs, one immediately discerns that “landscape” is as much an economic construct as it is a visual experience. Cemeteries reflect the idea of “land use” – i.e., the large green space at the edge of town chosen for a cemetery means one thing in 1831 and something else entirely in 2021 when it is surrounded by a teeming metropolis. In “World’s Greatest Cemeteries,” my goal is to visit cemeteries and mausoleums on every continent. Each place reflects its region, landscape, culture, religion, iconography, and peoples.
Mount Auburn is featured in the first episode. Can you tell us about your experience filming here? As you built this series and learned about these different cemeteries, what stood out to you about Mount Auburn that made it unique?
I began at Mount Auburn by directing the film crew at the first “A Glimpse Beyond” in 2012. Prior to that, I’d been there one time – for a funeral – circa 1990. Because “Glimpse” covered a significant portion of the grounds, I got to see the spectacular landscape, trees, plantings, elevations, monuments, and horticulture. I worked directly with senior staff and the “Glimpse” visionaries, and met grounds staff, office people, etc. Everyone was so nice, and they really appreciated art. I fell in love…like everybody else, ha ha.
You were Mount Auburn’s inaugural Artist-in-Residence from 2014-2016. How did that experience impact your filmmaking?
By 2014, I’d produced programs for three “Glimpse” productions, so I was familiar with the grounds. I had excellent working relationships with Visitor Services, Archives, Development, Volunteers, and other departments. All of these people were sophisticated, knowledgeable, respected history, and understood the artistic process. And they were warm, lovely folks. When I was offered the inaugural Artist Residency, my first thought was to film the landscape, monuments, and stories in all four seasons of at least one calendar year. I’d done that previously with “Trees of My City” – a yearlong multimedia project about the trees of Newton that was exhibited at The Arnold Arboretum; and “First Contact” – a yearlong piece for the Fisher Museum about Harvard Forest’s landscape in Central Massachusetts and the clash of indigenous/settler civilizations there in the early 17th century. It was also important to me to be able to film at night. I’d been studying long-exposure astrophotography and nighttime audio recording. Gus Fraser presented me with a key to the Cemetery. I was in heaven.
You are usually behind the camera, but on this show you are the host. How is it being in front of the camera?
What else have you been working on recently in addition to “World’s Greatest Cemeteries”?
In 2014 I began filming interviews with Baby Boomers for a program called “getting dot OLDER.” That program was greenlighted for public television in 2020. It premiered as a thirteen-episode weekly series nationwide on January 1st. It’s a hit, and we’re already filming for Season 2. My half-hour documentary about Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King’s meeting and romance, “Legacy of Love,” has just been added to PBS.org nationwide. I’m developing a feature film about Edmonia Lewis – whom I first learned about at Mount Auburn; a children’s musical animated series about worldwide folk tales; and a sitcom about an Afro-Latin immigrant family in New York. And transposing Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 Prelude from cello to my instrument, guitar. Yes, it hurts my fingers. But it’s worth it.
Tell us about the plans for Season 2. Where are you excited to visit and feature on the show next?
“World’s Greatest Cemeteries” gets a lot of fan mail from all across the U.S., and even from places as far away as Israel, Scotland, and Chile. Since we debuted in October, fans have recommended about fifty cemeteries around the world, in addition to my original list of twenty-six. That’s enough to keep me busy for a few more years.
Photo credit: Shawn Read