Dallying with the Dead

“Blessed Lord, what it is to be old;

Be the teller, and not the told,

Be serene in the wake,

Of a triumph, mistake,

Or life’s rainbows, with no pots of gold.”

I’m standing in front of the tombstone of 19th-century poet David T.W. McCord ’21 in Mount Auburn Cemetery. As I had been wandering the cemetery, a woman asked me if I was looking for any grave in particular.  No, I said, I had just come to the cemetery to explore, and she smiled and told me that McCord’s grave was inscribed with the cemetery’s most poignant epithet. The first verse, about youth, comes from a book of children’s poems; the second, about old age, McCord wrote as a response.

As I continue my walk, I reach a valley called “The Dell,” a favorite spot of frequent visitors to Mt. Auburn. Encased by steep walls and stately oaks, it is the lowest part of the cemetery. It is silent. It is hard to believe that I am surrounded by a city of millions of breathing, crying, laughing, living humans.

I rarely ever feel this kind of solitude at Harvard. There is the constant music of earbuds and street musicians, the fragrance of cinnamon rolls at Au Bon Pain, the sight of a student going from Point A to Point B while gesticulating wildly and holding a Very Important Conversation on her phone. There are meetings, classes, appointments, lunches, information sessions, parties. Stimulation is in high supply.

Two miles away from Harvard Yard, I’m standing among the corpses buried on Mt. Auburn Cemetery’s Harvard Hill. This spot was once the resting place of students and faculty who died far from home. Now the Hill has metamorphosed into the ultimate form of tenure, reserved for members of the Harvard faculty elected by the Harvard Corporation. The tufted peak of Memorial Hall peeks from behind thick oak branches. It is a quiet Sunday morning, and I have chosen to spend it with the dead. Surprisingly, their resting place is not morose. Mt. Auburn shows that a cemetery need not be like the dark burial grounds of film and literature; instead, it can be the perfect place for the young, old, or dead to “be serene in the wake of a triumph, mistake, / Or life’s rainbows with no pots of gold.”


Most Harvard students will never enter a cemetery. Why would they? From thousands of diverse backgrounds come students who gained admission for being full of life, for their drive toward activity and cravings for new experiences. I ask brightly-dressed Bree Harvey, Mt. Auburn’s Vice President of External Affairs, why she thinks Mt. Auburn is not often visited by students.

“Even though a lot of people know that it is a famous cemetery with famous people buried here, they pass it on Mt. Auburn Street and think that it looks ominous and foreboding,” she says. “Ironically, the big granite gate we built to attract people actually scares them.” According to Harvey, cultural depictions of graveyards contribute to this misperception. Think Sad Hill Cemetery in “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” or really anything Stephen King has written.

Mt. Auburn is more like a park than a crypt. It is 175 acres of winding paths, dignified trees, whispery breezes, and shimmering lakes. The land, called “Stone’s Wood,” used to be beloved by Harvard students as the perfect place to take respite from the bustle of 19th-century life, and the Cemetery was created in 1831 to ensure that the growing cities of Cambridge and Watertown would not envelop the forest’s beauty.

The founders were successful in their efforts. The sunlight dances through orange and yellow leaves. There are no black, crooked tombstones, only monuments of angels and reeds and even the occasional sphinx. Mt. Auburn looks like a park covered in sculpture.

Interestingly enough, the atmosphere of the rural cemetery is derived from its brethren institution, the public park. “It’s not so much that Mt. Auburn looks like a park, but that parks were created to look like cemeteries,” Harvey says. “When public parks, such as Central Park, started to be founded in the mid-19th century, cemeteries went back to being viewed as merely a place to bury the dead.”


Before cemeteries such as Mt. Auburn were created, the dead were laid to rest in burial grounds. The burial ground is a dark contrast to the pastoral cemetery. The Granary, a burial ground near Boston Common filled with American Revolution heroes, is a macabre scene of death. Skeletons line dark gray tombstones and nearly every marker has a frightening  image of a skull attached to wings, called “Death’s Head.”

“Colonial period, they didn’t have cemeteries,” says Robert Allison, History Chair of Suffolk University and an expert on Colonial History. “The Puritans were very clear that when you were dead, your soul is what mattered. It was incredibly utilitarian in that burials were used to discourage disease. Once you’ve been the ground from 10 to 20 years, it was safe to put someone on top of you.” Thus, burial grounds were viewed only as a convenient place to store the dead. “When they dug through [Boston Common] a couple years back, skeletons were literally falling down onto the workers.” There was no interest in mystery or love of nature; insofar as the Puritans were concerned, a burial ground was a only a necessary evil, like a prison.

“Once mortality rates decreased, colonists’ perspective of death was softened,” Allison says. “Places like Mt. Auburn and Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain were created as an alternative to burial grounds, which had filled up through plagues and the harsh life of the early colonial period.” That the peace of Mt. Auburn made me so serene is fitting—it is a place designed to reflect the prosperity of its era.

“When Mt. Auburn comes around, an idea emerges of a pastoral setting where you had a gravesite and the family would go to picnic at that site,” Allison goes on. “[Some families] would own a sketch in the bedroom of the family burial plot at Mt. Auburn. Throughout their week, they looked at the sketch.” This acceptance of death was reflected in the art of the time as well. In the mid-19th century, the city of Boston built a wall around the Granary Burial Ground with the image of an hourglass with wings on the gates. This iconography stands in stark contast with the Death’s Head that adorns the graves.

“Mostly it had to do with the change from Puritanism to Unitarianism,” says Allison, “changing from ‘God is wrathful and thinks you sinful’ to ‘God really likes you a lot and doesn’t want you to suffer.’” The metamorphosis from viewing humans like ants to be crushed by the hands of an angry God to viewing them as individuals whose intrinsic qualities earn God’s favor can be seen not only in the memorialization of those who died in the 19th century, but also in the community conscience of what it meant to be a Bostonian.

“It used to be said there were three requirements to be a Bostonian: you had a reader’s card for the Athenaeum, a pew at Trinity Church, and a plot at Mt. Auburn,” says Allison. In this way, cemeteries are highly representative of their time, designed to provoke a certain feeling, whether fear of God or love of nature. Mt. Auburn was designed for serenity.


There exists at Harvard a small group of faculty who show students Mt. Auburn’s beauty and encourage them to explore it. Professor John Mathew, who teaches Freshman Seminar 26y: “Science, History, and Theatre,” discovered the cemetery for himself over a decade ago, and now he guides his students through it when he gets the chance. I asked his freshman students if they had been to the cemetery yet and was met by a resounding chorus of affirmations.

“The deeper we went into Mt. Auburn, the farther down my jaw dropped,” says Jess R. Lucey ’15, a student in the class. “It’s called the City of the Dead, and time suddenly stops even though the city outside is whirring around you.”

Mathew takes personal trips to Mt. Auburn throughout the year, sometimes two or three times per week. “I grade papers there, go there to train actresses, or just to think,” Mathew says. “I’ve honestly have been waiting for eight years to teach this class.”

Some Harvard faculty hold Mt. Auburn in high regard for its role in Boston’s history. Chair of Folklore and Mythology Maria Tatar realized its beauty after a trip last spring to visit the grave of Jeremy R. Knowles, former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

“[Knowles] was such a charismatic, wonderful leader, and I had been meaning to go for quite some time,” she says. “I’m also a firm believer in facing reality.”

After the visit, Tatar told her children that she’d like to be buried in Mt. Auburn after her death and spoke to its significance for Harvard and Cambridge.

“I have lived in Cambridge most of my life, and think of myself as a dweller of New England,” she says. “Most of the people that Harvard chooses to be buried [on Harvard Hill] have made a huge contribution to the community … [but] I’m certainly not angling for anything.”

Being buried at Mt. Auburn does not appeal to everyone: it is an eternal association with identity as a Bostonian, Cantabrigian, or Harvardian. “I’ve given my life to Harvard. I do not wish to give my body to Harvard,” said the late Reverend Peter J. Gomes, and, true to his word, he was buried in Plymouth, Mass. last year.


As I walk down the winding paths of Mt. Auburn, my mind is not cycling through its usual rote to-do list. If I lay down on the grass, I would fall into a Rip van Winkle-esque sleep. Each poem or simple epithet seems to take on weighty significance, and the leaves look so sharp that I feel like my seven-year-old self receiving my first pair of glasses.

Mt. Auburn and cemeteries like it were created to stop the outside world of cities and politics from destroying the land’s beauty. They were meant to be visited, to be admired, to inspire comfort in those who sought it. However, it preserves not only a beautiful forest but also peace in an urban setting.

The City of the Dead creates a feel of connection with nature that relationships with people sometimes cannot provide. During my hours at Mt. Auburn, it seemed inappropriate to check my phone, to think about classes, to plan my day, to text my friends. I thought of the hourglass with wings on the wall of the Granary and asked myself if I was in the past—is this feeling provoked from the wishes of the original cemetery architects, or is this something new? How do we view death as a society now, and what will historians say about how people used Mt. Auburn today a century from now?

Part of the future may include an integration with nature even more complete than the early 19th-century movement. “We’re entering a new, naturalistic way of viewing cemeteries,” says Harvey. “Many of the more recent cemeteries preserve the landscape entirely, working with memorials placed on level with the ground. Many people are also interested in the green burials and prefer to be buried in a simple pine coffin or in a shroud.”

On the surface, green burials and burial grounds are strikingly similar. Both places deemphasize the importance of the individual and his or her life. In each case, the core of the ritual is placing a body, unadorned, in the ground, for it to disintegrate eventually into the dirt. Though these are similar goals, the motivations behind them are entirely unrelated. The Puritans disregarded the individuality of the dead as a part of their religious beliefs; those who choose green burials take a similar attitude based on their beliefs about nature. Thus, the constructed elements of graveyards have no single meanings in and of themselves; rather, we appreciate their tranquil beauty according to their unique historical context.

—Staff writer Christine A. Hurd can be reached at churd@college.harvard.edu.

Leave a Reply