There is something sacred about cemeteries. When visiting a cemetery, guests must show respect by walking—not running—and generally keeping to themselves. In a cemetery, you won’t find buskers, chatty Cathies, or other dawdlers who can so often be found in public spaces. I recently visited the Mount Auburn cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts and was pleasantly surprised at how beautiful this repository of the deceased was.
I have been to a number of large, well-known cemeteries including the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow which is the resting place of famous writers like Chekov and Bulgakov, as well as the late Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, and La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, which houses the graves of notable people including former First Lady of Argentina, Eva Perón. Famous cemeteries like the ones in Russia and Argentina are places where people are more likely to come to admire, pay their respects, and explore rather than mourn the deceased. The Mount Auburn cemetery boasts a beautiful and morbid charm that draws in visitors with no claim to the plots of land within its iron fences.
The first thing that struck me about the Mount Auburn cemetery was the sheer size of the land. The Story Chapel Visitor Center stands at the entrance behind the gates announcing visiting hours and that plots are available within the enclosure. Grassy hills sprawl out around and behind the structure and give the visitor a preview of what is to come from a grand tour of the place. I started down a path that would bring me to the heart of the cemetery. All paths are labeled with tall, simple signs. The paths were short, and I found myself quickly moving from one to the next. I passed structures of all sizes, tiny tombs with basic inscriptions, a neighborhood of stone mausoleums, obelisks, church-like structures, and even a sphinx.
At the center of things stands Washington Tower, which looks like a rook on a chess board and allows visitors an opportunity to climb to the top and peer out towards downtown Boston. Unfortunately, for me, the tower was closed for visitation, however, the view from the hill where the tower sits was stunning nonetheless. On my way out of the cemetery, I decided to take a convoluted path back to prolong my stay. I looked more closely at the tombstones and inscriptions. Many were simple containing just the names and the dates. Old and obscure names like “Watriss,” “Hagopian,” and “Ogilvie” appeared frequently on slabs. Still other monuments displayed quotes and epigraphs revealing particulars about the deceased.
The cemetery is art in itself. The paths are crooked and the land uneven to create an imperfect space, which vaguely resembles a human heart and living veins. Within this heart lay natural earthly beauty as well as masterful human constructions. A few ponds sit as still and as frozen as death itself. Indigenous and exotic trees line the paths and are granted small plaques with their species labeled upon them. It is as if the trees too are marked and catalogued as dead rather than living things. Many individual monuments to the deceased were crafted with reverence to their name bearers. Crosses, stars, and floral patterns are etched in stone. Larger memorials include statues of childlike angels, vases, and fenced areas to futilely elevate their residents in status above their neighbors.
Visiting cemeteries give me mixed feelings. I love to walk around and appreciate the art that is so abundant in such places, however, I cannot help but conjure a stream of morbid thoughts. For example, when I see a field of tombstones, I picture their ghostly namesakes standing where the slabs sit. In my head, I see men, women, children, and babies in older and modern garments, some in uniform, and others in formal wear. It makes me sad to think that each slab is not a name and date, rather a life lived and, perhaps, cut short. Thoughts of “forever,” “eternity,” and “finality” disrupt my thinking like unwelcome guests. I don’t like to dwell on these thoughts, and I did not linger for any more than 45 minutes. All the same, I found my trip to the Mount Auburn cemetery to be a beautiful and worthwhile visit. Dear Reader, beauty can be found wherever it is sought, even at a cemetery.