Mount Auburn Cemetery: Paradise Found

Alison Morris -- July 14th, 2008

Gareth and I live just a stone’s throw from one of my favorite spots in the Boston area: the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. When out-of-town guests come a-calling and I mention that I can’t wait to take them to my favorite cemetery they look at me askance, until they experience the place for themselves — then they invariably want to go back again.

Founded in 1831, Mount Auburn was the first large-scale designed landscape open to the public in the United States. The cemetery’s website explains its origins this way:

"Our founders believed that burying and commemorating the dead was best done in a tranquil and beautiful natural setting at a short distance from the city center. They also believed that the Cemetery should be a place for the living, ’embellishing’ the natural landscape with ornamental plantings, monuments, fences, fountains and chapels. This inspired concept was copied widely throughout the United States, giving birth to the rural cemetery movement and the tradition of garden cemeteries. Their popularity led, in turn, to the establishment of America’s public parks."

Today Mount Auburn is this lush oasis in the city, filled as it is with towering trees, flowering bushes, and (of course) the remains of many famous New Englanders. I have been there in every season, and can attest to its year-round beauty. AND the enormity of its size. AND the beauty of its plants and flowers, like these Bluebells.

Only living plant specimens are allowed here, unless you count those carved or in relief, like these roses:

Each time I visit Mount Auburn I discover something I hadn’t noticed before, and quite often my discoveries are tied, in some way, to BOOKS.

The carved headstone above is one I discovered on a recent afternoon visit, during which I also took a couple shots of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow‘s grave to share with all of you.

Longfellow is just one of the many, many famous people buried in Mount Auburn, many of whom were writers and poets. AND publishers, as it turns out. Just seconds after I took this shot, below…

I turned around, mounted a step, and came upon this sad scene, of decapitated tombstones…

and this explanation for it, below. (Clicking on the photos will take you to images large enough for you to read.)

Yep. Gareth and I had stumbled right onto the burying place of Charles C. Little and James C. Brown, of Little, Brown fame. As the signs explain, a large tree branch fell on this the spot during a wind storm in March, doing significant damage to the Brown lot…

and slight damage to the Little lot.

Conservators are currently working on repairs and restorations to both. (And they’re more than happy to accept donations toward those efforts.) If you are ever in the Boston area (or already are), I recommend heading over to Mount Auburn to check on their progress AND (more importantly) to just enjoy the beauty of scenes like this…

and plants like this (Lilly of the Valley).

The illustrators among you might enjoy making a sketch or two of spots like this (which is exactly what Gareth’s doing below).

The designers among you would probably appreciate the artistry of patterns like this:

And you typographers are in for a few treats too. As are those of you in search of names for book characters.

Of course, if that’s not enough for you, there’s always the option of visiting the graves of Winslow Homer, Nathaniel Bowditch, Fannie Farmer, and Isabella Stewart Gardner (below), just to name a few.

(All of the photos in this post have been saved to my ShelfTalker Flickr page, where you can view them larger if you’d like.)

Have you got a favorite cemetery near you? If so, please share. If not, please make a point of visiting this one so you won’t feel left out.

16 thoughts on “Mount Auburn Cemetery: Paradise Found

  1. Christine

    As a daughter of the South, we’re very proud of our cemeteries. I plan to have my own patch in Richmond’s historic and beautiful Hollywood Cemetery. Presidents Tyler and Monroe are buried there, as are Ellen Glasgow and James Branch Cabell. And, sadly, 18,000 Civil War soldiers.

  2. Elissa

    When I worked at an education publisher across the street, my coworkers and I would go to the cemetery for lunchtime strolls. Not only did we once come across filming of “Gone, Baby, Gone” (complete with both Affleck bros. — hello!), we also stumbled on a (free) tour of children’s literature-related grave sites. The guide was very knowledgeable, and it might be worth seeing if the cemetery will offer that walk again. Eleanor Hodgman Porter is buried there, and apparently the cemetery is sponsoring a book club discussion in August on Pollyanna.

  3. ShelfTalker

    Brian, I’m with you on the cremation point. And it’s bolstered by a statistic I just read this morning in a very entertaining book called Geekspeak (Collins, September 2008)– “We need the equivalent of 400 soccer fields to bury our dead each year.” Still, I’m grateful that our forebears, in their burial excess, left such beauty behind as places like this!

  4. Brian Kelleher

    Thanks to Alison and all previous posters for the great pictures and information on Mount Auburn and other cemeteries. It’s funny…personally I think cremation is a more sensible way to handle remains, once we “shuffle off”. But by the same token, cemeteries are amazing places of beauty, history and reflection. We’d all be poorer without places like Mount Auburn, Highgate, or Mt. Lebanon & Mt. Carmel in Brooklyn.

  5. Kate O'Sullivan

    These are such wonderful photos! Seeing as you’re a fan of Mt. Auburn Cemetery and a photographer yourself, you’ll appreciate Deb Noyes’s forthcoming Encyclopedia of the End: Mysterious Death in Fact, Fancy, Folklore and More—which features many photos that Deb took in Mt. Auburn, as well as an entry that briefly discusses the cemetery’s history. Thanks for the post and pics!

  6. mimi

    I had no idea a cemetery could be so beautiful, although I’ve always been fascinated with them. Visitors to Atlanta may want to tour Oakland Cemetery, which includes the grave of Margaret Mitchell along with numerous Confederate soldiers from the Civil War.

  7. J HAHNKE

    I recently bagpiped a memorial service there and I was stunned by the cemetery’s beauty. A warning to those who would visit, however—take a map and compass; even a GPS won’t help you find your way back out!

  8. ShelfTalker

    Thanks, all of you, for adding great stops to my future travels. Kevin, if I find an entrance to one of those tunnels I’ll be sure to let you know! (Tunnel of Lovecraft… heh, heh) Becky, thanks so much for the compliment!

  9. Rowena

    St Columba’s Berkeley Memorial Chapel in Middletown,Rhode Island has a lovely cemetery on the grounds. Lots of the stones are carved locally by the John Stevens Shop. Several noteworthy people rest in peace there, though a few of them had such nice or valuable memorials that they have been stolen.

  10. Margaret

    I’ll put in a word for Highgate Cemetery in London — not the Eastern section (site of Karl Marx’s grave), but the older Western section which is mostly very overgrown and is possibly the most perfectly Victorian-melancholy place I’ve ever been. Some of the tombs are listed as historic buildings, and there are gigantic holly trees said to have sprouted from clippings on the wreaths left on graves.

  11. Becky

    Incredible. I have cemetery envy now, Alison! And you are so lucky to live in an area with such a rich past. Little and Brown! Henry Wadsworth Longfellow! And you are certainly not the only one to have a fascination with cemeteries. A few miles from my house, by a local university, is a very old cemetery. Most cemeteries near me are not as beautiful as this one- yours looks more like a park- but the quiet, subtle beauty is enough to endure the quizzical expressions and the sidelong glances. Lovely pictures, too! If you ever tire of being a bookseller, I think you could make a nice career out of photography.

  12. Kevin A. Lewis

    Speaking of literary connections to Mount Auburn, is it true that the place is honeycombed with hidden tunnels wherein nameless horrors shamble and lurk? All I know about Boston is what I read in H.P. Lovecraft…

  13. Jeannine Atkins

    Thank you for this lovely, persuasive tour. I’ve never been, but am now determined to, even though those lilies of the valley have gone by. My husband grew up with a cemetery, aka sledding hill, behind his house, so is more prone to taking such sites with aplomb. Thus far my favorite cemetery is nearer to you than me. Sleepy Hollow in Concord MA has modest stones for the Alcott sisters and mother around a towering one for Bronson (no surprise there), a granite boulder for Emerson, and almost always wildflowers scattered near Thoreau’s grave.

  14. John DiCocco

    I live less than a mile away, too, and yes, aren’t we fortunate? I often take visitors there (sometimes local Bostonians who had no idea what they had been missing.) Thanks for the reminder–and the excellent photos.

  15. Becky McDonald

    Thank you for taking the time to photograph this lovely cemetery. I have loved looking at old cemeteries in thes south. If I ever get to Boston, and I hope I do, I will go to this beautiful spot.

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