Mount Auburn, located not too far from Harvard University, has the distinction of being the first rural cemetery created in the United States. Like Europe in the early 19th century, increasing urbanization in the US meant the need for larger cemeteries outside of city limits, and thus Mt. Auburn was established in 1831. Soon after, other large rural cemeteries began to be built across the eastern seaboard: Mount Hope (Bangor, Maine 1834), Laurel Hill (Philadelphia 1836), Mount Pleasant (Taunton, MA 1836), Rural Cemetery (New Bedford, MA 1837), Mount Hope (Rochester NY (1838), Green-Wood (Brooklyn, 1838), and Green Mount (Baltimore (1838). The establishment of Mt. Auburn clearly sparked a trend for bigger, landscaped cemeteries that appealed to all, but especially with well-to-do families who erected larger monuments for themselves or their loved ones. It comes up on so many (cemetery) lists I was both excited and anxious to visit, as I was worried it might not live up to its reputation.
But I needn’t have worried, it’s gorgeous. While it does have many interesting gravestones, statues, and other monuments, the real star is the landscaping. The massive oak trees, the large, meandering paths and roadways, the squirrels and chipmunks gathering as many acorns as they can….they all come together to make for a really beautiful experience. I was there on a warm, sunny day and the gardeners were hard at work cutting the grass and pruning the trees, as well as the numerous sprinklers working to keep the grass a lovely green, but it did not detract from my general enjoyment of the site. It was easy to see why these types of cemeteries appealed to locals in the 19th century, the popularity of cemeteries like Mt. Auburn and Green-Wood in Brooklyn (itself inspired by Mt. Auburn) led to the creation of city parks across the country, such as Central Park in New York. It’s amazing to me now that these cemeteries are not used by locals as much today. I understand that many are still working cemeteries, but this wonderful landscaped area really is under appreciated. And if you’re a birder of any sort, this cemetery is an excellent place to put your binoculars to good use – there are well over 200 (250?) bird species that inhabit the grounds here. Even though I’m not much of a birder myself, I found myself wishing I knew more about the lovely birds with red underwings that hopped around on some of the gravestones near me.
The cemetery is criss-crossed by meandering roads and pathways which makes it a lovely experience for strolling, but not so much for not getting lost (!). Actually, with a map in hand (which I had) it was easy to re-orient myself when I ended up in a location far from where I was expecting to be.
As the incredible landscaping here is the real star, it’s easy for the monuments and statues to get lost in all that space. In many European cemeteries, there often is no room for extended green spaces, so the statues, tombs and mausoleums are often quite close together. Here, they are spread far apart from one another, and with all the trees and small hills that make up the grounds here, it’s easy to miss notable graves unless you have time or are super focused on your map. I always seem to lack both when I travel, but I hope someday to return here and spend more time exploring this wonderful place.
On a final note, I have to say I always find statues of pets to be quite heartwarming when I see them as part of a grave. Here are two of my favourites during my morning stroll here:
Monuments: Great. There’s a big variety, from old-fashioned slate/slab-style gravestones, to grandiose memorials. The statues here are a bit more subdued and stoic (compared to European ones), but still very interesting to see.
Grounds: Amazing. If there was a rating for cemetery grounds, this one would be near the top of the list. While the land here is rolling, the ascents and descents are very easy. Paths and roads are well-marked. There aren’t really any benches to sit down on, save around some of the water areas.
Visitors: Most of the people I saw here were groundskeepers, other than one or two visitors like myself, I only saw a few people near the gate as I was leaving.
Notes: Lots of trees here means a lot of dappled light, so bright overcast would be better for photos I think, although the tree canopy makes things a bit darker than in the open areas. A telephoto lens would be good to capture birds and other wildlife that you see here.
Cemetery: Mount Auburn Cemetery
Notable Internments: Jacob Bigelow (he designed the cemetery), photographers J.W. Black (first city aerial photograph, portraits of Walt Whitman and John Brown) and Minor White, Dorothea Dix (nurse), Julia Ward Howe (“Battle Hymn of the Republic”), H.W. Longfellow (poet), William Morton (dentist who first used ether as an anesthetic),
Location: 580 Mt Auburn St, Cambridge, MA
Hours: 08:00-19:00 daily