Stories of Life in the Records of Death: Mount Auburn’s Lot Correspondence
Ever mindful of its heritage, Mount Auburn has kept and preserved the record of correspondence between the Cemetery and its lot owners from the founding of the Cemetery in 1831 to the present day. From beautifully illustrated planting plans to death certificates, the contents of more than 11,000 files are brimming with documents that chronicle the creation and care of individual Cemetery lots and the stories of the families associated with them. Mount Auburn risked losing a significant component of its documentary heritage, however, unless it provided protective conditions for these records. Fortunately a 7-year capital project, funded by a private donation, has made possible the long-term preservation of the collection.
When a lot is purchased, Mount Auburn creates a file that holds documents relating to it. The lot files contain correspondence between the Cemetery and families including succeeding generations regarding on-going care of the lot from the time of purchase to the present. The folders include a variety of documents: telegrams, personal notes, wills, genealogical charts, work order cards, perpetual care records, planting plans, and monument designs. In the files researchers find evidence of thousands of lives as told within the history of the rural cemetery movement in America. The lot correspondence records are often the sole place where these historical documents reside―revealing the tender human stories of individual families as well as American aesthetics, spiritual values, and interment practices. The contents of these unique and extraordinary files offer a wealth of untapped resources for families and scholars, and they continue to guide Mount Auburn staff in their historic preservation efforts.
Remarkably, Mount Auburn is one of the few cemeteries in the country to systematically preserve its institutional records. Most cemeteries have lost or discarded their historic correspondence, and in 1993 a survey of 17 rural cemeteries in America revealed Mount Auburn as the only cemetery with records dating back to its founding. In addition, Mount Auburn’s role as the first landscaped cemetery in North America, a National Historic Landmark, brings a greater significance to these lot correspondence records.
Even though many of the documents date back to the 19th century, Mount Auburn staff refer to these critical institutional files on an on-going basis. An alarming percentage of the documents are in fragile condition — brittle, discolored, torn, or otherwise damaged as a result of routine use, storage in overcrowded cabinets, acidic enclosures, and the New England environment. Plant materials and insect remains, which also accelerate the deterioration of the records, have been discovered in some folders. A site visit by conservators from the New England Document Conservation Center confirmed the urgent need for preservation and, in 2005, the Cemetery’s lot correspondence preservation and processing project began, led by Historical Collections Curator Meg L. Winslow.
The Historical Collections Department, currently in the third year of the lot correspondence project, has processed more than 4,000 files of an estimated 11,000. A dedicated team of individuals, including staff, consultants, interns, and volunteers, has contributed to the project. Archival Consultant Sara Goldberg, who began work on the lot correspondence as a graduate student intern in 2008, currently oversees the project. “These materials are unusual in that unlike other archival records, they are still actively used in the day-to-day operations of the Cemetery,” she explains. “As such, they are subject to a great deal of wear and tear, and it is our job to stabilize and protect them.”
Processing the records requires examining the entire contents of each file. Armed with a small micro-spatula, Historical Collections staff and interns carefully remove damaging items such as staples, grommets, brads, paper clips, and rubber bands that can exude corrosive elements onto the documents or cause tears. The indispensable spatula also comes in handy when separating items that have previously been glued together with poor quality adhesives.
A large majority of records in the files consists of acidic, woody paper. Not only does the paper eventually disintegrate, its sulfuric properties cause corrosion to and discoloration of the surrounding documents. Every acidic piece is laboriously photocopied onto acid-free paper, and the acidic original is removed from the file. Items of particular significance, age, or fragility—such as 19th-century deeds, genealogical cards, wills, and blueprints—are enclosed in protective archival sleeves and moved to climate-controlled storage. Oversized materials, including maps and plans are unfolded, flattened, and re-housed in flat file drawers.
While team members engage in the time-consuming task of examining each document, they also delight in the discovery of unusual details and unexpected treasures within the collection—the kind of intimate knowledge those working in historic archives come to have. Extensive genealogical charts and obituaries tell the official stories of individuals and their families, while letters and telegrams reveal a more personal tale. From these records of thousands of lives—lengthy and brief, celebrated and little known—comes an untold picture of American history, a still largely untapped resource for families, genealogists, and biographers. Brian A. Sullivan, former archivist at Mount Auburn Cemetery, had a magical ability to find among the seemingly dry institutional records the poignant, human stories within. He loved nothing more than sharing riches from the files with staff and friends of Mount Auburn.
Since the beginning of the project, graduate students in archival studies have worked in the Historical Collections Department to assist in processing the files. “Another one of the rewards working on this project is being able to introduce this material to our interns, who as future archivists will also be our colleagues,” Goldberg says. “Our interns are archival ambassadors, who take with them the experience of working with this set of historic documents and who can spread the word about the wealth of material and information within them.”
One of those interns, Simmons College graduate Jeremy Meserve, is enthusiastic about the discoveries he has made in the collection: “I have processed the files for Thomas Jefferson Coolidge and his son, both direct lineal descendants of our third president; sculptor Harriet Hosmer; poet Amy Lowell; historian and Harvard president Jared Sparks; and many other pioneering doctors, scientists, theologians, writers, musicians, senators, inventors, and artists. The details of their lives, and their interments, are made tangibly mine in some way.” Current Simmons intern Lindsay Mulgrew concurs, “I really like processing the folders and treating the documents like artifacts; the material culture of this archive really appeals to me.”
The lot correspondence project is paving the way for eventual digitization of this unique collection. While access to the materials is limited due to privacy issues, the contents of the files are referenced daily by Cemetery staff, who answer questions from family members, genealogists, and researchers. “So many stories come out of these folders, lives lived and lost as the circumstances found them. It is amazing how many correspondents confide in the Cemetery staff about their personal travails and history,” Meserve says. Mulgrew adds that the records vividly illustrate the ways in which “families and individuals put so much effort into their lots, either planning in advance of their own death to save their loved ones any effort, or sending a frantic request to have flowers put out the next day for the deceased’s birthday.” Correspondence with stone masons, orders for plants and flowers, newspaper clippings, genealogical charts, hand-written notes, and sketches of memorials tell the intertwined story of families and Mount Auburn Cemetery at the most personal and poignant moments of loss and commemoration.
This article originally appeared in Mount Auburn’s April 2012 E-Newsletter, and is written by Melissa Banta, Curatorial Consultant, and Meg L. Winslow, Curator of Historical Collections.