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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: The Landscape--Art and Nature.

Gen. Henry A. S. Dearborn, President of the Horticultural Society, took primary responsibility for laying out the landscape of the new cemetery in 1831 and 1832. He sent to Europe for books and maps illustrating and describing the landscapes of English gardens as well as Père-Lachaise Cemetery, a burial ground established in 1804 outside Paris which combined a pleasant site with artistically distinguished monuments. With the assistance of a surveyor and a committee of learned Bostonians, Dearborn laid out the roads and paths following the natural features of the land, naming them after trees and plants. He established an experimental garden where the latest varieties of fruits, flowers, and vegetables as well as exotic specimens were cultivated for demonstration. More than 1,300 trees were planted in the 1830s, creating the framework for the later arboretum. In 1835, the Mount Auburn Cemetery and the Horticultural Society separated and Mount Auburn became the private non-profit corporation it remains today.

Early descriptions of the site stressed the beauty of the natural landscape and the need for only slight embellishment. The nature that was valued by Mount Auburn's founders was a civilized landscape, enhanced by subtle manipulation of the hand of man. It was based upon English 18th-century ideals of scenery--a pastoral or domesticated landscape rather than a sublime wilderness. An observer in 1831 recorded:

The tract of land which received the name of Mount Auburn, is situated on...the main road leading from Cambridge to Watertown,...Its distance from Boston is about four miles.... The inner portion, which is set apart for the purposes of a Cemetery, is covered throughout most of its extent with a vigorous growth of forest trees, many of them of a large size, and comprising an unusual variety of kinds. This tract is beautifully undulating in its surface, containing a number of bold eminences, steep acclivities, and deep shadowy valleys. A remarkable natural ridge with a level surface runs through the ground from the south-east to north-west, and has for many years been known as a secluded and favorite walk. The principal eminence, called Mount Auburn in the plan, is one hundred and twenty-five feet above the level of the Charles River, and commands from its summit one of the finest prospects which can be obtained in the environs of Boston. Country seats and cottages seen in various directions,...add much to the picturesque effect of the scene.

The grounds of the Cemetery have been laid out with intersecting avenues, so as to render every part of the woods accessible. These avenues are curved and variously winding in their course, so as to be adapted to the natural inequalities of the surface. By this arrangement, the greatest economy of the land is produced, combining at the same time the picturesque effect of landscape gardening.... Lots of ground, containing each three hundred square feet, are set off, as family burial places, at suitable distances on the sides of the avenues and paths.... It is confidently expected that many of the proprietors will, without delay, proceed to erect upon their lots such monuments and appropriate structures as will give to the place a part of the solemnity and beauty which it is destined ultimately to acquire.¹

The first burial took place in July 1832, and within a few years hundreds of family lots and single graves were sold, and many monuments and tombs were erected. Some families purchased large lots and built expensive memorials; other people were buried in single graves with simple markers.

Questions for Reading 2

1. What did the founders of Mount Auburn Cemetery use for inspiration?

2. How was the landscape first changed after the cemetery was founded?

3. What elements of the landscape were mentioned as very important?

4. Why do you think the views from the highest hills of the cemetery were important?

Reading 2 was compiled from John Dixon Hunt and Peter Willis, editors, The Genius of the Place: The English Landscape Garden, 1620-1820 (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1988); Walter T. Punch, ed., Keeping Eden: A History of Gardening in America (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1992); and Jacob Bigelow, A History of the Cemetery of Mount Auburn (Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1860).

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

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