Boston and Cambridge's Naturalist Escape: Mount Auburn Cemetery

For naturalists and historians, serene vistas and migrating birds make Mount Auburn Cemetery, simply, paradise.

Walking through Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge exposes visitors to more than just a burial environment for thinkers, writers and other famous local folk. Its 174 acres offers a multitude of recreational pursuits, from bird-watching to hiking, and a history lesson on American landscape design.

Autumn is a glorious season here. But so is spring, summer, and winter. City dwellers walk down quiet boulevards, explore nature among memorials and chapels, and follow animal tracks. America’s first “rural” cemetery remains open to the public year-round.

A family walks through Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston.

This place was one of the inspirations behind the design of New York’s Central Park, as well as subsequent projects like New York’s Green-Wood Cemetery, Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery and Boston’s own Forest Hills Cemetery. Its founders wanted to create a setting that invited visitors for positive reflection about the deceased; they couldn’t have envisioned a grander project.

Today, the main challenge facing the visitor is: Where to start?

The Dell, a serene natural amphitheater at Mount Auburn’s heart, some of the nation’s most compelling burial sculptures, or perhaps an exploration of 700 species of trees and innumerable wildlife, including a record of 224 different bird species sightings.

A horticultural hotspot, Mount Auburn Cemetery attracts naturalists from all over the world.

Mount Auburn's founders—most of them Harvard University types from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society—envisioned something that didn’t exist in 1831. They invited nature and tranquility into the interment experience. Dr. Jacob Bigelow, the physician and botanist who headed the original design of the grounds and is now buried there along with a long list of descendants, wanted an environment that encouraged quiet thought. Bigelow and his partners drew inspiration from two sources—Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, and the large, landscaped grounds that had become popular in England in the early 19th century.

Mount Auburn Cemetery is used by many adventurers and nature lovers year round in Boston.

As Mount Auburn expanded from its original 70 acres, the quality of its structural art became internationally renowned. The Egyptian Revival-style gate that still greets visitors cost $10,000 to construct—not a modest sum in the first half of the 19th century.

Bigelow Chapel, known for the stunning colors in its stained glass windows, was completed in 1840 and is generally not open to the public. Story Chapel, which is open to the public, serves as a visitor center.

The 92-foot Washington Tower was designed by Bigelow and completed in 1854. In fair weather these days it offers those who care to climb it a stunning panoramic view of the Boston skyline.

Befitting Bigelow’s passion for botany and his position in the society, some of Mount Auburn’s greatest advances had nothing to do with its man-made landmarks.

Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston

Landscape architecture was later raised to an art form and many say fathered by Frederick Law Olmsted—the designer of such legendary projects as New York’s Central Park, Boston’s Emerald Necklace and the World’s Fair grounds in Chicago in 1893. Despite living in nearby Brookline and Belmont, there is no actual record of Olmsted visiting Mount Auburn, though his greatest project, Central Park, is known to have drawn at least part of its inspiration from the cemetery.

Andrew Jackson Downing, who has also been called the father of American landscape architecture, often referenced Mount Auburn. Prior to his death in an 1852 steamboat explosion, Downing himself had been tapped for the Central Park project. But Bigelow and his partners were very much on their own path in 1831, lining the contours of their park with trees and shrubs to bring space to the cemetery.

It would soon become an arboretum that attracted an international cast of arborists and botanists. Edward, the Prince of Wales and future King Edward VII, took part in a tree-planting ceremony here in 1860. Nathaniel Hawthorne contributed to the cemetery’s first unofficial visitor’s guide in the late 1830s. Henry David Thoreau was known to have visited during his time as a student at Harvard University. Ralph Waldo Emerson frequently retreated to the lush wooded plot even before it became a cemetery in 1831, when the property was still owned by a Watertown farmer. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was buried here in 1882.

But it is in the great tradition of Thoreau that the modern Mount Auburn community especially carries on.

A variety of bird species can be found at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston.

Just as Thoreau was a tireless recorder of all he observed in nature, Mount Auburn’s birding community is among the most devoted of its kind. Bob Stymeist, who keeps all of the records for the 101-year-old Brookline Bird Club, was present when the first-ever East Coast sightings of the hermit warbler, in 1974, and townsend’s warbler were made on the Mount Auburn grounds. Spring is prime birding season in Mount Auburn for migratory birds.

“On Mother’s Day you’ll find around 200 birders,” said Stymeist. Though Bigelow and his fellow founders did not plan on making Mount Auburn a bird haven, the cemetery’s location, not to mention its design, made it an incomparable spot. “It’s the variety of trees, a good food supply, and the four ponds in the cemetery that are the key points,” said Stymeist. “Mount Auburn is an oasis, so when (the birds) fly over they hone in on the area. The total species that has been seen there is pretty high for one little spot.”

A number of America’s earliest ornithologists—studiers of birds—are buried here, as well as a wide range of famous 19th- and 20th-century figures—from Charles Sumner, the abolitionist and U.S. Senator, to art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner.

Visitors to the park and cemetery aren’t tracked, but estimates have attendance at approximately 200,000 visitors per year. Actual numbers are probably higher. 

“My impressions of the place have changed significantly,” said Bree Harvey, Mount Auburn’s Vice President of Cemetery and Visitor Services. “I continue to learn new aspects of our story almost on a daily basis. You can really get lost in this place, and have a sense of peace and quiet.”

Walking tours and events of varied interests happen daily. For a calendar, click here.

 Tree's leaves change colors at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston

About the author