Mount Auburn Cemetery: Inspiration for America’s Public Parks

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According to the February issue of the global affairs magazine Monocle (www.monocle.com) Jakarta’s cemeteries “soon won’t be just a resting place for the dead.”  In an ambitious effort to triple the park space in the city, governor Joko Widodo, plans to turn cemeteries into parks as a part of a master plan to green the city and restore lost open space.

While it’s a long distance from Jakarta, Indonesia to Cambridge, Massachusetts I couldn’t help think (having just taught a seminar on American landscape history) about the evolution of cemeteries and how, particularly in New England, attitudes about their use and relationship within the urban environment have changed over time.   The development of rural cemeteries was a precursor to the creation of the American park system and Mount Auburn Cemetery, located just four miles outside of Boston and two miles from Harvard Yard, was the first rural cemetery created in the United States.

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“It’s not so much that Mt. Auburn looks like a park, but that parks were created to look like cemeteries,” observes Bree Harvey, Mount Auburn’s Vice President of External Affairs in the article “Dallying With the Dead” by Harvard Crimson staff writer Christine Hurd.  Notes Bree, “When public parks, such as Central Park, started to be founded in the mid-19th century, cemeteries went back to being viewed as merely a place to bury the dead.” To read the full article visit: http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2011/10/25/cemetery_halloween_auburn.

While Jakarta’s plan to repurpose cemeteries as parks rather than solely as repositories for the dead may be seen as unusual the relationship between parks and cemeteries is lengthy and the richly landscaped design of  Mount Auburn provides an intriguing precedent, albeit in a different cultural context.   While I am not certain how and if  Jakarta will implement its plan it is unquestioned that as cities throughout the world struggle with expanding populations, diminishing open space and degraded environments every piece of available greenspace needs to be maximized to contribute to the biodiversity of the larger ecosystem.

Thomas Chambers (1808-1869). Mount Auburn Cemetery. National Gallery of Art.

A painting of Mount Auburn by Thomas Chambers (1808 – 1869) depicts the tranquil landscape.

On another note, as Boston continues to experience a bout of dismal winter weather looking forward to spring, just four weeks away, provides a useful antidote and Mount Auburn, a landscape of contemplation and renewal, is the perfect canvas through which to celebrate the changing season.

On my last visit to Mount Auburn I photographed the plot of the SPRING family, one of the original “proprietors” of the cemetery, a fortunate coincidence.

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Founded in 1831 Mount Auburn was conceived as a place to accommodate the living as well as the dead, a “garden of graves'” where families could visit their loved ones in a sylvan landscape ornamented with sculpture sensitively sited within rolling terrain graced by ponds, dells, glades and a “mount” that afforded vistas to the Charles River, the New England landscape and the expanding city beyond.

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Inspired by Pere-Lachaise in Paris, Mount Auburn was designed as a picturesque landscape in the English style celebrating rather than subduing nature without formal constraint while embracing the topography and unique physical attributes of individual sites.  Popularized by the landscape theorist William Gilpin, the picturesque style of landscape design also incorporated architectural elements – rustic cottages, castles and Gothic ruins into its plan, particularly suited to a cemetery with its statuary and mausoleums.  At Mount Auburn monuments to the dead range from the simple to the elaborate reflecting both an interest in social status and classicism.

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From the onset Mount Auburn welcomed the general public and was a popular tourist attraction.  The winding paths and roads encouraged leisure and were well suited for carriage drives from the city.  A series of guidebooks and histories were published containing detailed description of individual monuments most notably by Nathaniel Dearborn.

The images below are from the eleventh edition of  “Dearborn’s guide through Mount Auburn: with eighty engravings for the benefit of strangers, desirous of seeing the clusters of monuments with the least trouble : with the established rules for the preservation of the cemetery, purchase of lots, and other concerns” published in 1857, just twenty-six years after Mount Auburn was founded.

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Before Mount Auburn most city residents were buried in churchyards or vaults below churches.  An example is Boston’s Old North Church which has 37 crypts holding more than 1,000 bodies piled below.  As the population of Boston grew, these options became untenable and concern about overcrowding and public health fostered a desire to locate new graveyards (as they were called at the time) outside of the city proper.

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Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in Boston’s North End was founded in 1659

This need coincided with changing attitudes about death and the growth of interest in horticultural pursuits exemplified by the founding of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1829.  As attitudes about death evolved so too did the terminology and the word cemetery, derived from the Greek and connoting a temporary place of rest rather than a permanent condition, emerged.

In 1830 the Massachusetts Horticultural Society purchased 72 acres of mature woodland in Watertown and Cambridge for $6,000 to develop  a “rural cemetery” and experimental garden.  Dr. Jacob Bigelow, Mount Auburn’s primary advocate  “…had his attention called to certain gross abuses in the practices of sepulture as it existed under churches and in other receptacles of the dead in that city.  A love of the country, cherished by the character of his early botanical studies, …led him to desire the institution of a suburban cemetery in the neighborhood of Boston, which might at once lead to a cessation of the burial of the dead in that city, rob death of a portion of its terror, and afforded afflicted survivors some relief amid their bittersweet sorrows,” according to Robert Manning in the History of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. 1829 – 1878,

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The site was laid out by Henry A.S. Dearborn, the first president of the Society and Alexander Wadsworth as an “embellished landscape” with rolling terrain, ornamental plantings, ponds, sylvan glades, monuments, fences, fountains, and chapels.

The map below by Dearborn is from the Norman P. Leventhal Map collection at the Boston Public Library.  To access the collection visit: mapsbpl.org.

Mount Auburn Dearborn 1848

While design inspiration came from the English Landscape Garden the layout anticipates early suburban developments, with curvilinear streets  framing distant views.  The streets were given sylvan names, also replicated  in suburban developments.  Thus the dead were the first to move to the suburbs.

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Lots were typically purchased for families, keeping both the physical household and “christian” family intact.  They were sold as fee simple real estate but the purchasers, who had become joint stockholders, were required to abide by the regulations of the cemetery.  A a portion of the purchase was placed in a fund for the perpetual care of the site.  The list of original proprietors is emblematic of Mount Auburn’s appeal and includes the names of many of the region’s  preeminent families including Boston Brahmins, political dignitaries, artists and authors.

Specific recommendations were provided on the design of individual monuments detailing plantings, materials and ornamentation.  Many sites were enclosed by ornate fencing or railings which were required to be “light, neat and symmetrical.”

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In an 1832 report further specifications regarding the laying out and improvement of lots were detailed. All monuments were to be marble or granite and plantings could not obscure individual lots leaving them “free and open” and of a “humble” character. The committee concluded their report by stating, “that the general appearance of the whole grounds should be that of a well-managed park.”

Whether defined as a cemetery or park Mount Auburn is beautiful in every season.  With over 500 species of trees it functions as an urban arboretum and is popular as a site for bird watching.  Tags provide assistance with vegetation identification providing the experience of a botanic garden.

An active cemetery, Mount Auburn has sensitively expanded to contain 170 acres and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (1975)  and as a National Historic Landmark (2003).

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While I have provided some highlights there are many more.  Visit the following links for additional information and plan to visit during the spring. The site is well documented with an information center and multiple brochures and walking tours available.

For additional information visit:

Mount Auburn Cemetery :  www.mountauburn.org

National Park Service: Teaching with Historic Places Lesson Plan:

www.nps.gov/nr/twhp/wwwlps/lessons/84mountauburn/84mountauburn.htm

The Cambridge Room:  thecambridgeroom.wordpress.com/category/mount-auburn-cemetery/

The copper sundial below, on the Joseph Story chapel reads, “With warning hand I mark time’s rapid flight from life’s glad morning to its solemn night, yet through the dear God’s love I also show there’s light above me by the shadow below.” The quote is attributed to the poet John Greenleaf Whittier.

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The Egyptian Revival Gate:

Originally made of wood, the current granite gateway was designed by Dr. Jacob Bigelow in 1842.  The Egyptian style reflects both the sacred and the sublime providing visitors with a ceremonial entrance that pays homage to the ancients and the passage from the world of the living to the world of the dead.

The gate is engraved with a winged disc symbolizing divinity, royalty and power and the upper cornice is decorated with vertical leaves in a style known as Egyptian Gorge containing a Cavetto cornice between a flat horizontal slab-like element at the top and a torus, below.

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The Bigelow Chapel:

Also designed by Dr. Jacob Bigelow the chapel was built in the 1840s – 1850s and constructed of Quincy granite.  Used for memorial services (Mount Auburn remains and active cemetery), the chapel is designed in the Gothic Revival style with stained glass windows imported from Scotland.  According to “An Introductory Walk” by the Friends of Mount Auburn Bigelow chose the Gothic style because it imitated the groves and bowers under which the ancient Druids performed their sacred rites

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The Sphinx:

A memorial commemorating the preservation of the Union and end of African slavery the Sphinx was commissioned by Bigelow in 1871 following the Civil War.   Designed by sculptor Martin Milmore the Sphinx is located on axis with the Bigelow Chapel.

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The Washington Tower:

Erected in 1852 to honor  General George Washington and his role leading the colonial forces at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. The  tower rises 125 feet above sea level and when first built offered a rare view of the surrounding countryside including Boston.

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The view from the tower remains unspoiled and it is a good spot to enjoy the fall foliage.

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Dearborn’s 1857 Guide to Mount Auburn includes an image of the tower on its cover.

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Consecration Dell:

This is the spot where on September 24, 1831 two thousand people gathered for the consecration ceremony officiated by Judge Joseph Story who dedicated the site as a “rural cemetery or burying ground …to plant and embellish… with shrubbery and flowers, and trees and walks and other rural adornments.”

One of the most unchanged landscapes of Mount Auburn, the dell contains a vernal pool and is planted with native eastern Massachusetts plants including Wintergreen, Lowbush Blueberry, Lady Fern and Bugbane.

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Asa Gray Garden:

Named for the noted botanist and early supporter (and critic) of Charles Darwin, the ornamental garden is located near the entrance to the Cemetery and contains a circular fountain complemented by both native and ornamental plantings including a Dove Tree and Yulan Magnolia.  The garden has been redesigned on multiple occasions including by Lawrence Caldwell in 1930, Innocenti and Webb in the 1960’s and most recently as part of a master planning effort by Halvorson Design Partnership, Inc. For additional images visit: http://tobiaswolflandscape.wordpress.com/159-2/.

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Spruce Knoll:  A Contemplative Garden:

One of Mount Auburn’s more recent landscapes Spruce Knoll is designed by landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy.  Using the surrounding landscape as inspiration, Messervy developed a woodland garden that is a natural burying space where ashes can be placed directly into the earth.  To enhance the contemplative quality of the site Messervy chose to ring the knoll with markers rather that integrate them throughout.  To read more about Julie’s vision for Spruce Knoll visit: http://www.jmmds.com/design/landscapes/mount-auburn-cemetery/.

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Copyright © 2013  Patrice Todisco  — All Rights Reserved

6 thoughts on “Mount Auburn Cemetery: Inspiration for America’s Public Parks

  1. What a fabulous descripton of Mount Auburn. I visited once years ago, and had a chance to talk to Elizabeth Vizza who was working on a new Master Plan, and who is now executive director of the Friends of the Public Garden. I am so looking forward to visiting once the good weather arrives to see the changes in Boston, and the gardens I have learned about here.

    • Mount Auburn is beautiful in every season and you were fortunate to speak with Liz who is both passionate and knowledgeable about historic landscapes. I don’t know when you were last in Boston but during the past decade many new parks have opened so you will be busy. Make certain you visit the South Boston Seaport.

  2. Patrice, Have you ever visited Swan Point cemetery in Providence? It was established 15 years after Mt. Auburn and bills itself as a “garden cemetery.” I remember it as a favorite local park from my grad school days in Providence.

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