Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Garden of Graves

It’s springtime, and Mount Auburn is in bloom. The birds have returned along with the birdwatchers. It’s hard to believe this tranquil haven is just miles from downtown Boston. What’s even harder to imagine is that this urban oasis is not a public park. It’s a cemetery.

Spread over 170 acres, Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is America’s first “garden cemetery.” In contrast to the bleak, overcrowded municipal burying grounds of colonial Boston, the founders of Mount Auburn Cemetery combined horticulture, architecture, and art to create a place that is ideal for quiet reflection and contemplation.

Unlike the colonial burying grounds, Mount Auburn Cemetery, open since 1831, was designed for the living as well as the dead. Natural beauty consoles the bereaved and is an affirmation of life amid the constant reminders of death. Sculptures and monuments honor the deceased, while they inspire the living. Jacob Bigelow, one of the cemetery's founders, called it "the attractive and consoling association of the garden and the grave."

The grounds of Mount Auburn Cemetery, a National Historic Landmark, are covered with both natural woodlands and formal gardens. With more than 600 species of trees and thousands of shrubs, the cemetery dazzles the eyes with rich, vibrant colors in the spring, summer, and fall. Even winter provides its own quiet, desolate beauty.

Grave markers range from simple, traditional slate tombstones to ornate Victorian monuments and massive mausoleums. Detailed works of art and sculpture adorn some of the family plots. Immense obelisks, Corinthian columns, and stone urns dot the rolling terrain and work in harmony with nature to give the feel of an outdoor art museum.

Over the last 175 years, generations of Boston’s most notable and prosperous families have been laid to eternal rest at Mount Auburn Cemetery. The family names on the older grave markers are a roll call of the city’s cultural, intellectual, and political elite. Cabot. Eliot. Endicott. Holmes. Lawrence. Lodge. Lowell. Peabody. Quincy. Winthrop. These Boston Brahmins evoke a time when Boston was considered the “Athens of America.”

Among the 94,000 people buried in the cemetery are governors, congressmen, actors, scientists, corporate tycoons, architects, painters, Supreme Court justices, theologians, and authors. It’s inspiring to be around such greatness.

While Mount Auburn celebrates the achievements of some of America’s brightest talents, the numerous graves of young children generate melancholy thoughts of potential greatness that went unfulfilled. In the mid-1800s, children under five accounted for one-third of the burials at Mount Auburn, and gravestones marked with images such as angels, sleeping children, and broken lilies serve as poignant reminders of a harsher time.

In the middle of the cemetery, a 62-foot-high granite tower built in honor of George Washington rises from the summit of Mount Auburn, rewarding those who make the short climb to the top with a commanding 360-degree panorama of Boston and its suburbs. Below, the Charles River snakes its way around the red-brick campus of Harvard University. The Boston skyline soars in the distance above the treetops. (The picture underneath the HubTrotter header is from the top of the tower.) Hard to believe you're in a cemetery.

No comments: