Photography by: Lindsey Kerr
In rural countryside outside of Boston, before Frederick Law Olmsted designed the Emerald Necklace system, a new public space opened that had a profound impact on society. Mount Auburn Cemetery was founded in 1831 by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in response to urban land use problems that were appearing as Boston grew in population.
One hundred and eighty two years later, on a beautiful, cool summer day, the Longwood Graduate Program visited the 175 acre arboretum and cemetery located in Cambridge, Massachusetts; now a bustling suburb of Boston. As we arrived, we were greeted by Dave Barnett, President and CEO of the Mount Auburn Cemetery, and, after short introductions, departed for a tour of the grounds. Mount Auburn is still an active cemetery, but one that would defy many preconceived notions one might have about such places. As we toured through the native wetlands, and wooded slopes, we learned how the grounds are laid out to both honor the deceased while also providing a space for the living to contemplate, heal, and find tranquility. The staff is devoted to conservation of the natural landscape, native biota, and historic fabric that all come together to make Mount Auburn the national treasure that it is. We ended our walking tour on top the Washington Tower surrounded by a native wildflower meadow, staring out towards Boston’s skyline in the distance.
We then jumped in a van and drove over to the brand-new greenhouse complex and composting facility, where we learned even more about Mount Auburn’s commitment to sustainability. The organization operates six new organic growing greenhouses, which allow them to grow many of the plants for the grounds and floral-shop on premises. They also collect many of the fallen leaves each autumn, along with all horticultural waste, and create their own compost on site to be used throughout the grounds. They have also installed a large underground cistern to collect rainwater runoff from the greenhouse complex that is then used to water the grounds during most of the year. Though the grounds are historic and reserved, the staff has a wonderful forward-looking mentality and a deep commitment towards the future.
After viewing the back-of-house facilities, we drove to the Bigelow Chapel for lunch. This Chapel was built in 1840, and was the original space created on the grounds for funerals and memorial services. It is now a multi-purpose building that can be used for funerals, weddings (yes this is true), board meetings, or, in the case of the LGP’s visit, a banquet hall. Dave Barnett and several other key staff members joined us for lunch and to discuss all aspects of the organization. Mount Auburn Cemetery is unique in the sense that as you browse their educational offerings you will notice classes about both horticulture and end-of-life planning. As with many small arboreta, the staff must wear many hats, including cemetery services, a situation that is absent in most public horticulture institutions.
After a wonderful lunch, the Fellows were able to enjoy some more time strolling the grounds and talking with staff members before getting back in the van and heading down the road to Harvard University to view the Glass Flowers. This spectacular collection of botanical specimens, created purely of glass, is mesmerizing as well as educational. It was a wonderful way to end our time in Boston before all piling into the van one more time to travel up to Maine.