For those of us who don't have girl friends, Mount Auburn Cemetery has always been a place where they bury people. It was a curious institution, this Mount Auburn, where, rumors suggested, every literateur from Euripides to Ernest Hemingway was entombed. Just to make sure, and to satisfy an insistent editor-boss, we strolled through its sacred arbors one misty, ethereal afternoon this week; frankly, we wish we'd never gone.
Peace, Prosperity and Progress
"We're really not very used to writing about cemeteries," we confessed uneasily to a sunny lady in the Administration Building.
"Oh, I never quite get used to it either," she answered sympathetically, handing us the 124th Annual Report which informs its readers: "Corporate prosperity with its attendant benefits was again the principal factor in making 1955 another good year for Mount Auburn."
We gulped, audibly, regrettably, and made for fresh air. The mist was a sweet but persistent spit now, and we gathered up our pluck and struck off on Fountain Ave. As we passed Primrose Path, Ash Ave., Indian Ridge, and a few other bustling thoroughfares, we remembered the recent experience there of an anarchic friend, told us in the cheerful atmosphere of the Adams House Dining Hall.
"Since it was a warm day," he had told us, "I took off my shirt so as to get a tan, and before I knew it a blustery man breezed up on a motorized lawn-mower, and said, 'Hey, Mac, put on your shirt,' so I said, 'Listen, buddy, I got more clothes on than most people around here,' at which point he spun around his machine in search of greener laws to mow." We stuck in our shirt-tale and the mist thickened.
Mary Baker Eddy was in sight, as we gingerly rounded Halcyon Lake. Squatting close by the shore, her monument was everlastingly protected by tree and shrubs. On the right side, a lady-sized tablet bore a quotation of the Discoverer of Christian Science herself; on the left, a similar tablet, perhaps slightly larger, was inscribed with words of Christ. We immediately rejected any speculation as to who was buried under the latter tablet, on the ground that it would be sacrilegious.
Our next famous grave, not far off, was that of Longfellow, where, we luckily remembered, the aged Emerson, a scant month before his own end, attended the burial on the arm of Charles Eliot Norton, also a future resident. From Indian Ridge, where Longfellow now slept as tranquilly as he did in his waking hours, we stumbled along Central Ave., to Cypress Ave., and then, trusting we were unobserved, skipped cross-country 'twixt stone and slab to the unforgettable Spruce Ave.
Spruce Ave., we suspected, was the "Main Street" for the community's 59,919 inhabitants. On it, or close by, slumbered some of Mount Auburn's most distinguished residents, including Phillips Brooks, President Eliot, Julia Ward Howe, Charles Sumner, Louis Agassiz, and Edwin Booth. Others, such as Amy Lowell, Francis Parkman, Josiah Royce, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, were further removed to be sure, but there seemed to be no class distinction in non-sectarian Mount Auburn, and most definitely, there was no "wrong side of the tracks." Spruce Ave., while invigorating, seemed exhausting, and we felt our temples throb as we struggled with the rugged terrain.
Clearly, we were making an exhaustive study, and we were sure that our editor-boss would permit a short rest. We reclined on a handy, if hard, piece of furniture and contemplated Mount Auburn's past.
America's "oldest garden cemetery" was consecrated in 1831. Dr. Jacob Bigelow, Boston botanist who coined the word "technology," induced the Massachusetts Horticultural Society to be the cemetery's sponsor, though just what that organization's interest was, aside from its inherent respect for fertilizer, seems obscure.
"In a manner novel for a cemetery," one historian observes, "it became a favorite carriage drive for Boston families, and a show-place to which were taken famous visitors, like Dickens, Emporer Dom Pedro of Brazil, and the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), who planted a purple beech tree in 1860."
Emerson led the assault of Harvard students of a comtemplative bent, who came to Mount Auburn to lose themselves in the shady walks. James Russell Lowell used to wander through Mount Auburn's glades "in pursuit of poetic thoughts," according to one noted writer, who also noted that Franklin Pierce was lost in thought under a tree there when he was informed that he had been nominated to the Presidency. Of course, we too were lost in contemplation, but since no one rushed to inform us of any impending elections, or great poetical thoughts, we just thought of the mist and the rain.
Reluctant as we were to leave, we turned our hearts and feet toward home. We left the 121 Harvardmen there interred; we abandoned without adequate tribute the roster of University presidents since John T. Kirkland, who died in 1810 (James Walker and Thomas Hill, the exceptions, repose elsewhere); and most important, we remained untouched by Mount Auburn's natural beauty which others have so enjoyed. No Euripides, no Ernest Hemingway. We just couldn't appreciate this gross slyvan glade speckled with gray Victorian masonry that the prospectus so proudly called "the City of the Dead." But then it was raining pretty hard.