Cemetery is named “Mount Auburn”

April 26, 2017

The seventy-two acres purchased from George Brimmer for the purpose of a cemetery was commonly known to locals and Harvard students by the name of “Sweet Auburn” after the fictitious town in Oliver Goldsmith’s 1770 poem “The Deserted Village.”  When deciding what to call the cemetery, the founders chose “Mount Auburn” as a simple name change from what most already called the land but not until considering other name options.

Bigelow consulted many about what to name the cemetery, for this was the first time an American burial ground was to be given a proper name.  Some suggested the classical but generic “Necropolis” (City of the Dead), but others countered that the name suggested an urban place rather than a “rural” landscape.  Edward Everett, then North American Review editor, favored Bigelow’s choice of “Mount Auburn,” a simple change in the property’s popular name but also symbolically descriptive. “Auburn” reminded classical scholars of the mythical Lake Avernus, a circular crater nestled into a hilly landscape in Campania near Naples.  It was the reputed entrance to Hades sought by Virgil’s Aeneas in search of his deceased father, and an allegory built into the landscape of the famed English gardens of Stourhead in the 1740s.  Everett also thought that “Elysian Fields” would be a “pretty” name, though as objectionable to the religious as “Sweet Auburn” because of its classical literary reference; yet he rationalized that “Use diminishes surprisingly all such associations, as is seen in the case of the new towns in New York [State] – Troy, Utica.  The name “Mount Auburn” was of good Anglo-Saxon origin.  It was also suggestive of allegorical sites visited in the Reverend John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) by Christian, an Everyman en route to the Celestial City, such as Mount Marvel, Mount Innocent, and Mount Charity.  The name like those of subsequent “rural” cemeteries, resembled names given to the era’s new “rural” (suburban) estates.  By midsummer 1831, Bigelow and the Horticulturists were calling their proposed cemetery “Mount Auburn.”

Excerpt from Silent City on a Hill: Picturesque Landscapes of Memory and Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery by Blanche M. G. Linden. pgs 147-148.

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