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My New Book!

Friday, June 5, 2015

June 5, 2015: Mount Auburn Connections: Cemeteries and the Past

[If you’re in New England, there are few more beautiful spots for a spring walk than Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery. In this series, I’ll highlight a few American connections for this unique site and all it includes. Please share your thoughts, on this site and any other beautiful or evocative spaces you’d highlight, for a crowd-sourced weekend walk!]
On two overt ways cemeteries can add to our collective memories, and one very subtle way.
As my posts this week have illustrated, Mount Auburn Cemetery is one of America’s most carefully designed, planned, and constructed cemeteries, as much a public memorial and site as a place to bury and remember those who have passed away. Yet in truth, even the most seemingly simple cemeteries are also designed and constructed, are the product of planned efforts to create such sites of rest and remembrance. Whether their planners were individuals, families, communities, government entities, religious institutions, the military, or some other forces, they in any case thus provide significant opportunities for us to consider the attitudes, ideologies, time periods, and worlds of those behind them. Indeed, there are few such spaces more consistently present in American communities, nor many that go as far back into our past, and thus we cannot ignore what cemeteries have to teach us without losing a unique archive of primary texts as a result.
Such primary texts also exist within each and every cemetery, in the form of the tombstones, crypts, monoliths, monuments, engravings, and many other forms through which families and communities remember those who have passed. Even a brief walk around Mount Auburn, for example, makes clear that the stones and engravings for even the cemetery’s most private individuals (ie, not the famous ones like Shaw and Eddy on whom earlier posts this week have focused) are complex, compelling, rich repositories of lives, identities, families, historical perspectives, and more. The sad but inevitable reality, of course, is that many of the cemetery’s oldest stones are rapidly fading (if they have not already done so), a problem that is only amplified at the nation’s much older cemeteries like Plymouth’s Cole’s Hill Burial Ground (first built in 1620!). Which is to say, this particular archive of American primary sources is a time-sensitive one, making it all the more important that we recognize what we can learn from these public sites and engage with them while we can.
In both those sweeping and intimate ways, cemeteries represent a vital AmericanStudies resource. Yet at the same time, it’s important to note that most of our communal cemeteries don’t include or engage with some of the American histories most in need of better collective memory. From slaves to Native Americans, Chinese railroad workers to South Seas sailors, and many other cultures, oppressed or marginalized American communities have far too often been excluded from our shared cemeteries, forcing them to create far more easily overlooked or destroyed resting places. Perhaps the best single example of this exclusion is the absence of the Salem Witch Trials’ victims from the city’s main burial ground, an absence foregrounded pitch-perfectly by the adjacent Witch Trials Memorial. In this way too cemeteries have a great deal to teach us about our past—but this particular lesson requires attention to what’s not in our cemeteries as well as what is, a complex, easily overlooked, but crucial complement to AmericanStudying beautiful resting places like Mount Auburn Cemetery.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So one more time: what do you think? Perspectives on Mount Auburn, or other sites or spaces you’d share?

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