Mount Auburn Cemetery was the first garden cemetery in the United States, located on the city line between Cambridge and Watertown in Massachusetts, 4 miles west of Boston. The cemetery is credited as the beginning of the American public parks and gardens movement.
Prior to the establishment of Mount Auburn Cemetery, the early American cemeteries were established as places under churches for burial of deceased church members. As the available space under a church was filled, cemeteries often were built on available land in front of, beside, or in back of the church. These graveyards sometimes created serious health problems as graves were not always dug 6 feet deep. As a result, diseases often were spread amongst a population that had little or no knowledge of germs or the causes of the spread of diseases.
As these spaces became filled with bodies and as the population became more aware of health issues, “burying grounds” were established in most any space that was suitable for the purpose. As early as 1711, the architect Sir Christopher Wren advocated for the creation of burial grounds on the outskirts of town, “inclosed with a strong Brick Wall, and having a walk round, and two cross walks, decently planted with Yew-trees”.
In fact, the word “cemetery” was not common in Colonial days. The term “cemetery,” derived from the Greek for “a sleeping place,” became popular in the 1800s as a replacement for “graveyard.” Many were placed in rural areas, some distance from human habitation.
Mount Auburn Cemetery was one of the first to be planned as a pleasant place to visit with gardens, waterfalls, and even walkways that were pleasing to the eye. Quoting Wikipedia:
“The first rural cemetery in the United States was Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, founded by Dr. Jacob Bigelow and Henry Dearborn of The Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1831. The City of Boston became concerned about the health hazards caused by decomposing corpses in cemeteries in the middle of the city. A citizens’ group led by Bigelow pulled together residents to discuss the design and location of a cemetery outside city limits. The search for a site took six years and land was eventually purchased on a farm known as Sweet Auburn along the Charles River about four miles from Boston.
(NOTE by Dick Eastman: This selected location was open farm land in 1831 but the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts expanded greatly over the years. Now Mount Auburn Cemetery is a pleasant public garden or even a city park totally surrounded by the city.)
“Coinciding with the growing popularity of horticulture and the Romantic aesthetic taste for pastoral beauty, Mount Auburn was developed as a “domesticated landscape” popularized by 19th century English landscape design. Its plan included retention of natural features like ponds and mature forests with added roads and paths that followed the natural contours of the land, as well as the planting of hundreds of native and exotic trees and plants. United States Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story delivered the dedication address on September 24, 1831.
“Mount Auburn also began the practice of allowing the purchase of family plots large enough to allow the burial of several generations of a single family.”
The cemetery soon became a tourist attraction, attracting locals as well as tourists from across the country and Europe. Mount Auburn Cemetery also became the location of many of Boston’s leading citizens, including ministers, politicians, army generals, Civil War heroes, authors, industrial leaders, and many more.
A few years ago, I became one of those tourists and spent most of a day in the Mount Auburn Cemetery. I had planned to go for only an hour or two early in the morning. The place was so interesting, however, that I remained there most of the day.
A short time later I moved into a home in the Boston suburbs, only a few miles from the Mount Auburn Cemetery. I returned to the cemetery and took a video camera with me. I took many videos of the tombstones, the gardens, the scenic ponds, and the winding roads and pathways. I have since selected the better videos and combined them into a “digital tour” of the garden cemetery. You can watch the video on YouTube at https://youtu.be/Zs63WUAyA5M or in the video player below:
There are thousands of tombstones and memorials in the cemetery. A video of all of them would be several hours long! Instead, I am only showing a small sample of them.
This 8-minute video is a sampling of two things: (1.) the beauty and artistry of the Mount Auburn Cemetery and (2.) a number of hints about taking pictures or videos of tombstones.
Statues and memorials often include depictions of angels and cherubs as well as botanical motifs such as ivy representing memory, oak leaves for immortality, poppies for sleep, willow trees for sorrow and grieving of the families in mourning, and acorns for life.
You can learn more about the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Auburn_Cemetery and in the cemetery’s own web site at: https://mountauburn.org.