“Monuments of Mount Auburn Cemetery”
Presented by David Russo
Sponsored by the Historical Society of Watertown, MA
Watertown Free Public Library
May 24, 2017
An arboretum, a botanical garden, a template for the American rural cemetery movement…with Mount Auburn Cemetery in Watertown, MA, it’s all of the above.
Given the grace of the many of the memorials, it could double as a museum as well.
The May 24 slideshow presentation by David Russo, Chairperson of the Watertown Historical Commission, was a select tour of nearly three-dozen of the cemetery’s notable monuments. The range of memorial designs– Canopy, Cenotaph, Column, Ledger Stone, Obelisk, Sarcophagus, and Pedestal - is from intimate to bold, modest to commanding.
Founded in 1831, the cemetery, Watertown’s largest contiguous open space, is the most under-the-radar world attraction in Massachusetts, maybe the country. Its perimeters are lined with an ordinary looking assortment of trees, fencing and tall bushes that offer no vistas to the interior.
Inside is a world-class cemetery that happens to be the first rural landscaped cemetery in the nation, a template for other big-time American cemeteries, and, thirty years later, inspiration for Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park to boot. The top three tourist destinations in America in the 1840s were Niagara Falls, Mount Vernon, and The Mount Auburn Cemetery (60,000 visitors in 1848). Despite its Cambridge address, 167.5 of the cemetery's 175 acres are in good 'ol Watertown.
Before the 1830s, burial grounds and graveyards were pretty barren places, skeletons occasionally poking up from the earth, and evoked a dark ‘Grim Reaper’ demeanor. After the design of Mount Auburn Cemetery, inspired by the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, the public park and garden movement, a place to celebrate life while mourning the departed, was off and running.
In 2013, David Russo, was tasked by the Massachusetts Historical Commission to update an old inventory of the cemetery's structures and landscapes done in the 1970s.
The task was ideal for an individual with an appreciation for detail, exactitude, and research. Russo was a perfect fit. He used the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s Object Inventory Form that requires photographs, maps, a design assessment, a historical narrative, the inscription, a bibliography and/or references to document his findings. The same form requires identifying the type of object, date of construction, designer/sculptor, materials, alterations, condition, and setting. It took Russo three years to complete the inventory and was the basis for his presentation.
He identified a whopping 225 individual resources including monuments, mausoleums, and even a bridge in the cemetery. Russo described the meaning of the symbols inscribed on the monuments selected for the presentation. Commonly understood shorthand in the 1800s, most of them need the commentary by historians like Russo to be understood today. Russo credited Meg Winslow, curator of the Mount Auburn Cemetery, for her support in his endeavor.
“The founders of Mount Auburn Cemetery wanted to inspire, using the landscape and the monuments to transform the space into a place for quiet contemplation and reflection,” Russo said. His slides displayed a landscape with varied topography and monuments of varying size, aesthetic impact, and purpose. From the get go, the founders wanted to extol the lives of the dead as aspirational models for the living.
Boy oh boy, did they succeed. Abolitionists, philanthropists, sculptors, actors, authors, social reformers, mathematicians, with names were familiar to locals and the nation, found their final resting place there, as do 98,000 lesser known citizens.
We know about Boston, but who knew that little Watertown and its big brother Cambridge were also home base for such a rich host of luminaries. Mary Baker Eddy, Fannie Farmer, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Winslow Homer, Julia Ward Howe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Abraham Maslow…no matter what part of America you live in, you’ll recognize many of these names.
Russo’s slides highlighted the aspects that made Mount Auburn Cemetery a model for some of the most impressive cemeteries in the country and, in essence, transformed the way we honor our dead. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2003.
Anyone who can present an hour-long slide show and keep an audience engaged with a topic necessarily heavy on names and dates deserves praise.
Russo’s success was in large measure due to his ability to keep the pace brisk, the underlying facts tied together with a consistent frame work that highlighted the designers and architects of the monuments, the accomplishments of the men and women for whom they were built, and perfectly timed interjections of humor.
“This was a cultural landscape, the first of its kind,” he said.
It remains an irony that a place in which we bury our dead and shed our tears rises above our grief to become a place in which we find solace, accept the finite nature of life, and count our own blessings.
"Mount Auburn has and always will be a sacred place of remembrance, a place to mourn those we have loved, a place to seek inspiration and solace, and a place to celebrate life." mountauburn.org
Paul A. Tamburello, Jr.