A Landscape of Memory: Mount Auburn Cemetery

Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge and Watertown, Massachusetts, is a sacred place, a burial place, a pleasure ground, a work in progress. Mount Auburn Cemetery was founded in 1831 and became a model for the American ‘rural’ cemetery movement.

The idea to create suburban landscaped cemeteries goes back to ideas by architects such as Sir Christopher Wren and Sir John Vanbrugh in the late eighteenth century. The suburban cemeteries addressed the issues with overcrowded graveyards in the cities. The Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris is seen as the first exponent of this movement, when it opened in 1804.

When the Massachusetts Horticultural Society purchased the existing woodland their vision was to create a rural cemetery and experimental garden. It would answer the need for new burial places outside the city of Boston. The rural cemeteries were also from their beginning intended as places for public use. Mount Auburn was envisioned as a place were family could remember their loved ones and also as a place for art and a beautiful natural setting. Soon after Mount Auburn’s creation it inspired many other new landscaped cemeteries across New England. For instance, Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor, Maine (1834); Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Taunton, Massachusetts (1836); Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, Rhode Island (1846). Mount Auburn even inspired the creation of similar green zones in England, such as – amongst several others – London’s rural cemeteries at Kansal Green (1932) and Abney Park (1840).

Many of these historic cemeteries are now designated landmarks. Mount Auburn is now also credited as representing the start of the American public parks and gardens movement. Mount Auburn was listed on the United States National Register of Historic Places in 1975. It received National Historic Landmark designation in 2003. Many people who helped to shape the world and influenced New England are buried in the tranquil environment of Mount Auburn.

The Mission Statement of Mount Auburn Cemetery now states that it ‘inspires all who visit, comforts the bereaved, and commemorates the dead in a landscape of exceptional beauty’. Mount Auburn is now known as a place for art, graves, people, nature, horticulture and wildlife. It is cared for by the Friends of Mount Auburn Cemetery, which were established in 1986 and became in 1990 a non-profit charitable trust. The trust is set up for ‘the conservation of the Cemetery’s natural beauty and to promote the appreciation of its cultural, historic and natural resources’. Its work includes the preservation of the historic monuments and archives, as well as a rejuvenation of the cemetery’s horticulture.

 

The landscape styles of the cemetery are described as ranging from ‘Victorian-era plantings to contemporary gardens, from natural woodlands to formal ornamental gardens’. Its hilly terrain allows for more intimate and enclosed zones, while providing many vistas. Fantastic views over Cambridge, Waterton and towards downtown Boston can be seen from the 62-foot (19 m) granite Washington Tower, centrally located in the cemetery. It was built in 1852–54 and named after George Washington.

 

Plant materials from around the world have been introduced and Mount Auburn is now a world-renowned arboretum. Its exceptional collection includes trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. The cemetery does not group plants systematically, as done in most botanic gardens or arboreta. Plants are informally arranged throughout the grounds. The collection includes over 5,500 trees of nearly 700 species and varieties. Many of the plants are tagged with botanic labels.

The trust manages the cemetery with a strong commitment to sustainability and responsible stewardship for the environment. The cemetery functions as a green zone within a now large metropolis, and as such provides an important habitat for many animal species, with for instance over 220 species of birds observed since 1958.

Mount Auburn can freely be accessed and allows for cars to follow the meandering loop road, while pedestrians may walk the grounds. Cycling is not permitted. The road and paths network amount to about 10 miles (17 km) routes.

As a living monument and landscape of memory, Mount Auburn remains an ongoing study of the balance between art and nature, life and death.

For more information and the key source of information for this article: Mount Auburn Cemetery.

 Jan Haenraets is a Director of Atelier Anonymous Landscapes Inc., Vancouver, BC, Canada

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