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the Readings


Inquiry Question

Historical Context


Reading 2
Reading 3



Table of

Determining the Facts

Reading 1: The Founding Vision--A "Garden of Graves"

Bostonians' dissatisfaction with the burial grounds of their city led the Massachusetts General Court, in 1810, to grant the town authority to regulate burials more closely. The following year, the town ordered the disinterment of many remains in old graves to reclaim space for future burials. This was not an uncommon practice in cities at that time. However, many Bostonians saw the act as a desecration of the memory of their ancestors and looked for other solutions to the problem.

The idea of a burial ground outside Boston had been discussed informally for several years, but Dr. Jacob Bigelow, a Boston physician and Harvard professor, was the first to take action. In 1825 he called a meeting of prominent Bostonians to explore the concept of a rural cemetery, a place beyond the city limits composed of burial lots interspersed with trees, shrubs, and flowers. The rural cemetery was to be a place for the living, as well as the dead, where family values and the endurance of the family would be celebrated, and nature would provide comfort and inspiration. It would be designed to be an example of the best in landscape and artistic taste.

In 1831, a committee of the newly formed Massachusetts Horticultural Society formally undertook the venture of founding the cemetery, using a 72-acre piece of property four miles west of Boston on the Watertown-Cambridge line. The Watertown family, who owned the land for decades, had cleared and farmed level areas nearby but allowed the trees of the rugged area to grow to maturity. Another attractive feature was that the topography of the land was varied; it included a network of ponds and wetlands and a mature forest of native pines, oaks, and beeches that created a place of special rural beauty. The spot was a popular retreat for Harvard College students and local residents. The students had nicknamed it "Sweet Auburn" after a town popularized in a poem by Oliver Goldsmith, "The Deserted Village." This poetic nickname inspired the name for the tallest hill at the site—Mount Auburn—and gave the cemetery its name as well.

The Mount Auburn Cemetery was formally dedicated on September 24, 1831. More than 2,000 people journeyed out from Boston on foot and by carriage to meet in a deep dell, a natural amphitheater, at the cemetery for the consecration ceremony. Joseph Story, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, spoke at the ceremony:

A rural Cemetery seems to combine in itself all the advantages, which can be proposed to gratify human feelings, or tranquilize human fears,...And what spot can be more appropriate than this, for such a purpose? Nature seems to point it the favorite retirement for the dead. There are around us all the varied features of her beauty and grandeur—the forest-crowned height;...the grassy glade; and the silent grove. Here are the lofty oak, the beech,...the rustling pine, and the drooping willow;—the tree, that sheds its pale leaves with every autumn, a fit emblem of our own transitory bloom; and the evergreen, with its perennial shoots, instructing us, that "the wintry blast of death kills not the buds of virtue".... All around us there breathes a solemn calm, as if we were in the bosom of a wilderness, broken only by the breeze as it murmurs through the tops of the forest, or by the notes of the warbler pouring forth his matin or his evening song.

Ascend but a few steps, and what a change of scenery to surprise and delight us. We seem, as it were in an instant, to pass from the confines of death, to the bright and balmy regions of life. Below us flows the winding Charles [River] with its rippling current, like the stream of time hastening to the ocean of eternity. In the distance, the City,—at once the object of our admiration and our love,—rears...its lofty towers, its graceful mansions, its curling smoke, its crowded haunts of business and pleasure....

We stand, as it were, upon the borders of two worlds; and...we may gather lessons of profound wisdom by contrasting the one with the other, or indulge in the dreams of hope and ambition, or solace our hearts by melancholy meditations.

The voice of consolation will spring up in the midst of the silences of these regions of death.... The hand of friendship will delight to cherish the flowers, and the shrubs, that fringe the lowly grave, or the sculptured monument.... Spring will invite thither the footsteps of the young by its opening foliage; and Autumn detain the contemplative....

Here let us erect the memorials of our love, and our gratitude, and our glory.¹

The Boston Courier newspaper, reporting on the dedication of Mount Auburn, remarked, "[Mount Auburn] has now become holy ground and...will soon be a place of more general resort, both for ourselves and for strangers, than any other spot in the vicinity...."

Questions for Reading 1

1. Who started Mount Auburn Cemetery? When? How was its founding celebrated?

2. Where was the new cemetery located?

3. What did Joseph Story praise about the site? What do you think he meant when he said, "We stand, as it were, upon the borders of two worlds"?

Reading 1 was compiled from Jacob Bigelow, A History of the Cemetery of Mount Auburn (Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1860); Kenneth T. Jackson and Camilo J. Vergara, Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1989); Blanche Linden-Ward, Silent City on a Hill: Landscapes of Memory and Boston's Mount Auburn Cemetery (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989); David Charles Sloane, The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991); and David Stannard, ed., Death in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975).

¹ Jacob Bigelow, A History of the Cemetery of Mount Auburn (Boston: James Munroe and Co., 1860).


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