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Monday, June 1, 2015

June 1, 2015: Mount Auburn Connections: Origin Points

[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!]
Three ways to contextualize the cemetery’s 1831 dedication.
On September 24th, 1831, more than 2000 spectators came to Cambridge to help dedicate what was to be the nation’s first landscaped cemetery. Earlier that year the Massachusetts Horticultural Society had purchased 72 acres of land in the city and neighboring Watertown in order to construct what they called a “rural cemetery and experimental garden,” a project that could well be considered a first step toward the City Beautiful movement that would come to dominate American urban planning at the end of the 19th century. One of that movement’s primary goals, after all, was to create natural, pastoral escapes within the borders of urban spaces, green retreats like Central Park (designed in 1858) and Boston’s Emerald Necklace (begun in 1870) where the nation’s citizens could find those pleasures and pursuits not quite available to them in city life. Those spaces, and their designer Frederick Law Olmsted, are often considered the first prominent steps toward the movement—but a significant case could be made that it was in the pastoral beauties of Mount Auburn that the philosophy first took root.
If connecting Mount Auburn’s origin points to the American future offers one important contextualization, however, there’s a complementary and equally compelling way to read them in relationship to the past. As captured with particular force in Alfred F. Young’s The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution (2000), the 1820s celebrations of the 50th anniversaries of Revolutionary-era events and moments became a vehicle for some of the first sustained conversations and debates over how to commemorate and engage with America’s past. While occasional celebrations and reenactments offered one set of commemorative options, and permanent memorials such as Boston’s Bunker Hill Monument (first raised in 1823) a second, it seems quite possible to me to read historical cemeteries such as Mount Auburn as a third. It’s no coincidence, that is, that at the center of Mount Auburn is a tower dedicated to George Washington (which was not completed until the 1850s but included in the cemetery’s initial plans): the cemetery is as much about the people and communities remembered in its gravestones and memorials as about the pastoral beauties surrounding them; and remembering those people with such impressive grandeur comprises a particular, venerative attitude toward the past.
The oration delivered at the 1831 dedication by Joseph Story, Supreme Court Justice, Harvard University Law Professor, and the first president of Mount Auburn Cemetery, could be paralleled to those commemorative endeavors and attitudes. Indeed, historian Garry Wills has cited Story’s speech, and particularly lines like “We are met to consecrate these grounds exclusively to the service and repose of the dead,” as an important predecessor to Lincoln’s Gettsyburg Address and its images of hallowed ground and honored dead. Yet to my mind, the most vital element of Story’s speech is an immediate, personal context for it: the recent death of Story’s 10 year old daughter to scarlet fever. Although he does not refer to that tragic loss overtly (he does include “the parent, weeping over his dear dead child” among a list of prospective mourners whom the cemetery will include), it is impossible not to read this personal experience into lines like “As we sit down by their graves, we seem to hear the tones of their affection, whispering in our ears” and “We return to the world, and we feel ourselves purer, and better, and wiser, from this communion with the dead.” After all, if Mount Auburn Cemetery is both a beautiful pastoral escape and a potent historical commemoration, it is also and most importantly the site of nearly two centuries of such personal and familial mournings and communions—and Story’s eloquent reflection on those themes thus represents a vital addition to our understandings of this hallowed space.
Next connection tomorrow,

PS. What do you think? Other sites or spaces you’d share?

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