City of the dead

Mount Auburn Cemetery looks back on 175 years — and ahead to an eternal future
By MIKE MILIARD  |  November 30, 2006

The Memorial Sphinx to the Union Dead.

Some are simple slabs, inscribed only with a name and two dates. Others are enormous and imposing: stylized Etruscan sarcophagi, sculpted Grecian urns. This monument is crested with a weeping angel, her doleful face weatherworn into shallow relief; that tomb is colonnaded, guarded for eternity by the statue of a loyal canine companion. There are massive brownstone crypts for storied United States senators and tiny markers for day-old, nameless babies who never knew the world. There are knotty Celtic crosses, headstones inscribed with Armenian script, blocks carved with Buddhist symbols; plain marble plaques, polished granite spheres, and soaring abstract sculptures.

The monuments at Mount Auburn Cemetery, tens of thousands of them, are scattered over 175 acres of grassy hillocks and gentle slopes, clustered around leaf-slicked ponds. They stand at attention along manicured footpaths, tilt in dappled shade under massive weeping beech trees, dig into craggy hillsides, sit protected and regimented within fenced-in family plots, and poke moss-green and crooked from the wild brambles of the forest floor.

More than 5300 trees sit in this sprawling Elysium, 750 varieties from here and abroad. There’s an abundance of local oak, maple, and pine, but also Japanese heartnut, cucumber magnolia, and Serbian spruce. Birds are everywhere: owls and sparrows, red-winged blackbirds, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and at least one great blue heron. Foxes and chipmunks. A black dog (who’s not supposed to be here) chases after a gamboling squirrel while kids scamper uphill to climb a stone tower’s 95 spiral stairs.

It’s pleasant here on a warm late-autumn afternoon. So much so that it’s almost jarring to look down from a hill to see a small group of black-clad mourners standing solemnly by a polished hearse. But this is a cemetery, after all. More than 94,000 people have been buried at Mount Auburn in the 175 years since its ground was consecrated in 1831, and 600 more are inhumed, inurned, or immured here annually. Since the encroachment of the outside world has made expanding these grounds impossible, ever more creative ideas must be found to make use of these precious acres.

Far from a stark and foreboding necropolis, Mount Auburn Cemetery is a gorgeous and contemplative place. It’s a home for the dead, but it’s also a place for the living. A place to think about life, to ponder the past and the future. It’s a world apart — remaining, as a Boston newspaper editorial described it upon opening, “a village of the quick and the silent, where Nature throws an air of cheerfulness over the labors of death.”

The challenge, of course, is to keep it that way for another 175 years — and forevermore after that.

MOUNT AUBURN’S FAMOUS ETERNAL RESIDENTS: (Clockwise from top left) Henry Cabot Lodge, Oliver Wendall Hlmes, Mary Baker Eddy, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Winslow Homer, and Isabella Stewart Gardner
Garden of demise
Compare Mount Auburn’s rolling manicured hills, glinting with sunshine and shadow, red and yellow leaves gusting down the walkways in windy little eddies, with the colonial cemeteries in downtown Boston — tiny, austere churchyards choked with chipped slate markers emblazoned with death heads and winged skulls — and you get an idea what a sea change Mount Auburn represented. Conceived by Dr. Jacob Bigelow, and laid out in 1831 by Henry A.S. Dearborn, president of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, Mount Auburn marked out new ways of thinking about public parks that shaped the future of landscape architecture across the developing country.

Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, which opened 27 years prior, was an obvious influence. As Kenneth T. Jackson and Camilo José Vergara point out in their book, Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery, Père-Lachaise’s layout, located in an out-of-the-way section of the city on “variegated terrain, with hills, flat stretches, large rocks, and dense woods,” was a development that had theretofore been “inconceivable.” Its success was immediate, and it soon became one of the most visited spots in Europe.

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