Exploring Two of Boston’s Garden Cemeteries

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My dad has a thing for cemeteries. He’s a retired history teacher and is fascinated by old tombstones, in particular. He loves coming to visit me in Boston, where we have not one but four historic cemeteries downtown, which serve as the final resting place for many important figures from the early days of our nation.

This is a guest post by Brianne Miers of A Traveling Life

On two recent visits, he and I decided to branch out of downtown and explore two of the most notable “garden cemeteries” in the U.S., which have a much different feel than urban cemeteries. Garden cemeteries – or “rural cemeteries” – sprung up in the 19th century when crowded cities ran out of room to bury the dead, and the wealthy began looking for more peaceful final resting places on the outskirts of town.

These cemeteries also served as some of the first country’s first public parks, and were carefully planned with elaborate landscaping, art and architecture that enhanced the natural beauty of the area. Families often commissioned memorials from well-known artists and sculptors, turning the grounds into what are essentially outdoor museums today.

Mount Auburn Cemetery

mount auburn cemetery

The first large-scale garden cemetery in the U.S. was Mount Auburn Cemetery, which sits on 175 acres in Cambridge and Watertown (a 20 minute or so drive from downtown Boston). Founded in 1831, it now serves as the final resting place for 100,000 individuals (and counting) and features more than 1,500 types of plants.  

My dad and I spent a few relaxing hours strolling around the woodsy grounds on a warm fall day. After grabbing a map at the Visitors Center, we made our way on the paved paths to the highest point in the cemetery, Washington Tower. From the top, you can take in 360-degree views of Boston and the surrounding cities and towns. Other highlights were Willow Pond and Asa Gray Garden, both of which offer beautiful spots to sit and relax.

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We found that most of the 60,000 monuments and statues – honoring Boston-area scientists, lawyers, inventors, soldiers, and other notable figures – to be relatively understated compared to other cemeteries we’ve explored together. However, a few memorials not to miss are the Scots Charitable Society Lot Fence, which surrounds a burial ground containing 225 Scotsmen, and the Sphinx, a Civil War Memorial.  

As we were wrapping up our visit, we paid a visit to two of the cemetery’s most famous residents, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and philanthropist Isabella Stewart Gardner.

mount auburn cemetery mount auburn cemetery mount auburn cemetery

Fun fact about Mount Auburn Cemetery

  • Mount Auburn Cemetery was the first cemetery in Massachusetts to be certified “green.”

Tips on Visiting Mount Auburn Cemetery

  • Mount Auburn Cemetery is a 25-minute walk from the Harvard Square “T” (subway) stop, or you can take a bus. You can drive through certain areas of the park or leave your car in the parking lot and walk. Bikes are not allowed in the cemetery.
  • You can rent an audio walking tour or driving tour. There’s also an app you can download.

Forest Hills Cemetery

forest hill cemetery

Forest Hills Cemetery, located in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood (also about a 20-minute drive from downtown Boston), was founded a little later than Mount Auburn, in 1848.

During Victorian times, the 275-acre property was a popular weekend destination for city dwellers who wanted to get some fresh air and take a stroll among the thousands of tree and plant species from around the world. The cemetery also served as inspiration for Emerald Necklace, a chain of parks throughout Boston and Brookline that were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.

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My dad and I visited Forest Hills on a warm spring day around Easter when the leaves, shrubs, and grass were a brilliant green and some of the flowers were starting to bloom. Like Mount Auburn, we kicked off our visit by picking up a map at the Visitors Kiosk and then spent a few hours walking around the grounds on our self-guided tour.

We both agreed that we took a lot more photos at Forest Hills than at Mount Auburn – the sculptures, memorials, and statues at Forest Hills seemed much more impressive. One of the most noteworthy pieces is the monument “Death Staying the Hand of the Sculptor” by Daniel Chester French. There also were two statues commemorating children that we found to be particularly touching – one was a little boy in a rowboat and another was a life-like replica of a little girl.

forest hill cemetery

Among the doctors, abolitionists, sculptors, composers, and other notable individuals buried at Forest Hills, there are a few particularly famous residents: poet e.e. Cummings, playwright Eugene O’Neill, and suffragist Lucy Stone.

forest hill cemetery

Fun fact about Forest Hills Cemetery

  • Lucy Stone was the first person in Massachusetts to be cremated.

Tips on Visiting Forest Hills Cemetery

  • Unlike at Mount Auburn, both bikes and dogs are welcome at Forest Hills Cemetery.
  • It’s very easy to get to Forest Hills Cemetery by public transportation – just take the orange line “T” to the Forest Hills stop, and it’s a quick walk from there.

forest hill cemetery

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garden cemeteries in boston

Brianne is a Boston-based travel blogger who is "working to see the world" by balancing a career with a life of travel. Join her as she seeks out local, unique and sustainable attractions in the U.S. and around the globe.

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