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Setting the Stage

During the first quarter of the 19th century, Boston, Massachusetts, grew from a small village into a major commercial center. Land was at a premium in the newly incorporated city, which had used up much of its original peninsula and was in the process of filling adjacent areas for expansion. Among the first priorities was the development of a safer, healthier city. Boston's burial grounds were seriously overcrowded in the rapidly expanding city; additional space was no longer available within the city limits. Residents were concerned that the burial grounds were contaminating water supplies and that gases emanating from graves threatened public health.

Attitudes about death and burial were changing significantly around this time. In Boston the burial grounds were barren landscapes—crowded, poorly maintained, devoid of plantings, and with little sense of permanence—which reinforced old Calvinist teachings about the horrors of death. As Puritanism declined, and their notions about death were replaced by gentler ideas about mortality, New Englanders began to embrace melancholy and sentimentalism as desirable states of mind.

Mount Auburn Cemetery, founded in 1831, reflected these changing notions about death and at the same time addressed the problem of overcrowded city cemeteries. Located about four miles outside of Boston, Mount Auburn Cemetery provided ample space for burials amidst a tranquil, natural setting. As the country's first large-scale designed landscape open to the public, Mount Auburn attracted not only mourners, but city dwellers wanting to experience nature, students, and tourists as well.

 

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