Celebrating friendships, stories and discoveries along the way

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Splendors of Mount Auburn Cemetery

On a recent weekend I accompanied a group of fellow genealogists to Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. Meg Winslow, curator of historical collections for Mount Auburn, gave a wonderful presentation on the genealogical collections of the cemetery. After her presentation she led our group on a walking tour of the awe-inspiring cemetery grounds.

Mount Auburn Cemetery, founded in 1831, is America’s first landscaped cemetery and an established green space, as revealed in two of the cemetery’s breathtaking locations, the Dell and Halcyon Lake.

At every corner of Mount Auburn Cemetery the gravestones and monuments harmonize perfectly with the horticultural features of the landscape, evoking sensations of repose, relaxation, and peace.

Mount Auburn is the final resting place of many historical figures, including authors, poets, statesmen and soldiers.

During our walking tour Meg highlighted the symbolic aspects of grave markings and their evolution over time, shaped by historic events. The American Civil War played a significant role in nineteenth-century gravestone symbolism, as the aspects of untimely death touched every family. A common example of nineteenth-century gravestone symbolism is the draped broken column. The drapery indicates mourning, while the broken column indicates a life cut short.

This gravestone, revealing a hand holding a lamp, symbolizes life after death.

Two significant Civil War monuments are the Sphinx and the Shaw family monument.

Jacob Bigelow, founder of Mount Auburn Cemetery, chose the Sphinx as a symbol of physical and intellectual strength of our reunited nation, bearing this inscription on its side:
American Union Preserved
African Slavery Destroyed
By the Uprising of a Great People
By the Blood of Fallen Heroes1
The Sphinx is situated on a lovely park directly across from Bigelow Chapel, one location to honor the Mount Auburn founder and the sacrifice of those who fell to preserve the Union.

The Shaw family monument is located near the Sphinx on Pine Avenue. Boston philanthropist Robert Gould Shaw (1776 - 1853) planned the family burial location. His grandson, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, was killed in an ill-fated attempt to storm Fort Wagner in South Carolina on July 18, 1863 and is buried outside the fort in a mass grave with his men. Colonel Gould's name is inscribed on the family monument as a cenotaph in tribute to his memory. 2

As our tour ended Meg parted with our group at the front gate, inviting us to continue our exploration and encouraging us to return again. Meg was extremely gracious and we remain very grateful for the time and consideration she extended to our group.

Mount Auburn is a home for many species of wildlife and is a birding location of the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Bird sightings are posted on the main gate and on the cemetery website. Recognized as a scenic and historic treasure, Mount Auburn is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a designated National Historic Landmark of the Department of the Interior. 3

In addition to the splendors of an onsite visit Mount Auburn has a wonderful website for online exploration. The website is continually updated with events to satisfy historians and naturalists alike. The website hosts an interactive burial map that pinpoints burial locations and is extremely valuable for the gravesite visitor. Please visit Mount Auburn online at http://www.mountauburn.org.

1Mount Auburn Cemetery (Cambridge, Middlesex County, Massachusetts), “The Sphinx,” African-American Heritage Trail – The Sphinx | Mount Auburn Cemetery (http://www.mountauburn.org/2013/aaht-sphinx/: 27 June 2013).
2Mount Auburn Cemetery, “Shaw Monument,” African-American Heritage Trail – Shaw Monument | Mount Auburn Cemetery (http://www.mountauburn.org/2013/aaht-shaw/: 27 June 2013).
3 Mount Auburn Cemetery, Map - Mount Auburn Cemetery, map and brochure (Cambridge, MA: Mount Auburn Cemetery, 2013), inside brochure section.

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