Modern society tends to fastidiously avoid talking about death in general, but autumn has a special way of bringing about the topic. It’s the season of detritus, as vibrant green leaves fade to shades of red and orange and eventually drop to our feet, where they turn dry and brown and crumble to dust. There’s Halloween as we know it, but also its Christian and pagan predecessors dedicated to remembering and celebrating the dead.
Cambridge is an old city, and as such it has no shortage of cemeteries, all easily accessible, which give visitors an opportunity to honor Cantabrigians of bygone eras and a glimpse into the rich history of the area.
Let’s start with the oldest of the Cambridge cemeteries, the Old Burial Ground, located in Harvard Square at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Garden Street, which dates back to before 1635. The grounds served as Cambridge’s only cemetery for 200 years, and the list of notable interments includes eight Harvard presidents (not surprising, with the university just across the street), as well as at least 19 Revolutionary soldiers, some of whom were slaves.
The Old Burial Ground emerged at a time when cemeteries were more functional and less concerned with ambiance. It has the feel of a church cemetery (the graves are close together and less orderly than in a modern cemetery), although the nearby churches were, in fact, built much later. Most of the gravesones are slate and made in classic tombstone shapes (either a regular slab with a curve at the top, or what is known in the business as “an oval headstone with shoulders”). The tombstones, many suffering the ravages of time, often begin “Here lyes…” or “Here lyeth…” and at the top have a cherub’s face (or even more often, a skull!) with wings.
There are two graves here that stand out from the rest. The first is a stone tomb in the shape of a large cross laid flat near the fence on Mass. Ave., which has the surname at the base and names and dates inscribed on the sides. Here, as is the case with many of Cambridge’s resting sites, the names on the monument are recognizable to any local. The name “Dana” lends itself to both a popular Cambridgeport park and a Cambridge street, but one name in particular, of someone who married into the family, should be immediately familiar to any local.
Washington Allston (1779-1843, and, yes, he was named after America’s first president) was a famous and influential painter and poet whose legacy lives on just over the river. Allston lived in Cambridge and never actually resided in the Boston neighborhood that bears his name, but many believe he earned the honor thanks to his immortalization of the area in his painting entitled “Fields West of Boston.”
Another noteworthy grave is the substantial stone marker belonging to Henry Dunster (1609-1659), the first president of Harvard. The exact location of Dunster’s original site within the Burying Ground was unknown for many years, but in 1846, Harvard University set out to search for his remains. They soon claimed success and promptly put up what is his current monument (despite some lingering grumblings from skeptics).
The Cambridge Cemetery (76 Coolidge Ave.) often gets overshadowed by the much larger Mt. Auburn Cemetery (580 Mt. Auburn St.) located just across the street, but both are equally accessible (a 25-minute walk from Harvard Square, or a short ride on the 71 or 73 bus), and both are “modern” cemeteries, with immaculate lawns, footpaths and shady scenery. The Cambridge Cemetery is notable for having sections devoted to war veterans, ranging from the Civil War to World War II. Some of its more famous interments include heroes of the earliest days of American baseball, back when the rules of the game were still being tweaked. One interment, John Clarkson (1861 to 1909), was a Major League Baseball pitcher who played for the short-lived “Worcester Worcesters” (based in, you guessed it, Worcester), as well as the “Boston Beaneaters,” a team that has had many names over the years but is now well-known as the Atlanta Braves.
Founded in 1831, Mt. Auburn Cemetery has the distinction of being the first “rural cemetery” in the United States, taking its inspiration from similarly park-like cemeteries from Europe such as the Pe?re Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, and in turn inspiring similar cemeteries throughout the U.S. (In fact, the word “cemetery” itself, derived from the Greek meaning “a sleeping place,” wasn’t even part of American English before Mt. Auburn Cemetery was established.) Mt. Auburn includes 175 acres of sloping hills, ponds and paths. Upon first entering, visitors encounter an enormous and magnificent purple-leaf beech, just one of hundreds of species of flora within the cemetery, not to mention a range of birds and other wildlife. The visitor center offers a film and an exhibit on the history of the cemetery, and visitors can pick up kids’ activity guides, an audio tour and a map highlighting more than 60 of the site’s famous interments.
Mt. Auburn Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 98,000 people (and counting!). The types of graves range widely, and at the most imposing end of the spectrum is that of Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910), the founder of Christian Science. Eddy’s impressive memorial is located next to the cemetery’s largest pond and takes the form of a circular colonnade comprised of eight columns and made of granite with inscriptions of quotes from Eddy and the Bible.
(Incidentally, the local lore about Mary Baker Eddy being buried with a working telephone is an unfounded rumor. The myth grew up due to the fact that her casket was guarded at the cemetery’s receiving area for a month while the gravesite was being prepared, and during that time a telephone was installed for the guards’ use.)
There are far more modest tombstones in the cemetery as well, and none could be plainer than that of Dorothea Dix (1802-1887). Dix advocated for humane treatment of the mentally ill, leading to some of the first mental asylums in the nation, but her tombstone is much more modest than her legacy: a regular headstone that simply records her name.
This cemetery is worth a pilgrimage for more than just history’s bigger names. It’s fascinating to wander around the plots belonging to unknowns: a cluster of tombstones for an entire family (one for each member, parents and children), obelisks and family crypts. The cemetery includes the family crypt of the Gardners, a? la Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924), whose eponymous museum is a celebrated Boston attraction, particularly for anyone named Isabella (as they get free admission).
Whether you’re hunting down the gravesite of a famous deceased Cantabridgian or just looking for a nice weekend activity, you’ll be sure to find plenty of interesting stories at Mt. Auburn or any of Cambridge’s other cemeteries. And don’t worry about having to pack it all into one trip: Everyone there will be waiting patiently for your next visit.