On a sunny May day, I set off for a relaxing and romantic stroll-through a graveyard.
Mount Auburn Cemetery is nestled on the outskirts of Cambridge, MA. It was founded in 1831 by Dr. Jacob Bigelow, a professor of medicine at Harvard and General Henry Dearborn, a representative of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Mount Auburn is what is known as a ‘rural cemetery’, the first of its kind in the United States. Whereas previous cemeteries were always affiliated with churches, rural cemeteries broke tradition in several important ways. Rather than being buried in crowded plots in or around a church, Mount Auburn is a spacious 175 acres, situated outside of the city. Furthermore, this also means that Mount Auburn was non-denominational and remains so to this day. Mount Auburn was also carefully crafted as a combination of park and cemetery, with much of the grounds being dedicated to conservation and all street names derived from flora. The terrain was carefully sculpted to include several lakes and rolling hills and valleys, many picturesque spots for visitors to pause and take in.
What was most compelling to me was that there were so many stories that the grounds had to tell. Even with just the visible reminder of the dead, you could extrapolate about the humanity and vitality of the dearly departed. As an architectural historian, I had so much to devour from this visit-from the landscape design to monument design. The graves in the newer parts of the cemetery were marked with simple plaques and for others along the way, they were modest tombstones. But for the great families of Boston, there would be beautifully designed crypts or monuments. For some, there were also small beds or bassinets to denote when children passed away. There was also an eclectic mix of monuments, from a Sphinx gifted during the Civil War to a small rotunda of columns on a lake, dedicated to Mary Baker Eddy (the discoverer of Christian Science).
When I first arrived on the site, it seemed bizarre how at odds the summer atmosphere and blooming trees were with my perception of what a cemetery should be-a somber and austere place to remember those who came before. At first, I was preoccupied with reading the gravestones. They read like a “who’s who” of Boston’s social elite; indeed, I got a jolt of excitement from recognizing names that I knew as benefactors of my programs, seen emblazoned on my school buildings or even just recognized as names of places around Boston and Cambridge.While previous cemeteries would be religious statements based on which churchyard you were buried in, being buried in Mount Auburn lends a certain social cache, even in death. Isabella Gardner Stewart of museum fame was buried in her family’s crypt; the Durants the founding family of my alma mater also could be found in Mount Auburn. Among their compatriots were founders of colleges, notable social activists and social servants-all people who not only shaped the city of Boston but also their nation as a whole. But with this voracious appetite to discover more people, like a treasure hunt for famous names-I felt a twinge of guilt that their final resting place could become the source of my entertainment rather than reverence. I almost felt like I was intruding on these hallowed grounds, simply by being alive and happy.
But I soon realized that the cemetery had been designed with users in mind, for us the living. Yes, the grounds are a beautiful final resting place but the meandering paths were designed for being leisurely strolled upon. From Washington Tower, named for George Washington, a visitor can have spectacular panoramic views of the Boston skyline. Those beneath the ground may have visited the park in life but would never see how beautiful their final resting place really is, on a sunny day in late May-but I could.
Due to the nature of the profession that I wish to enter, the issue of mortality is inevitable. But the concept of death does not need to be austere, frightening and unfamiliar. The finality of death underground and vitality of everything above ground was an unsettling juxtaposition but I could not help but feel tranquil in such a place. My experiences with cemeteries prior to this trip is that they are beautiful and quiet but also sad places where we remember those who came before us and go on only special occasions. But if a cemetery can be beautiful and quiet and for the living as well, how terrible could that possibly be?
(Cover image courtesy of the Mount Auburn Cemetery)