Early Tours through the Garden of Graves: Mount Auburn’s 19th-Century Guidebooks

August 21, 2012

Today, sightseers to Mount Auburn might take a self-guided tour of the Cemetery by browsing through the Mount Auburn app on their hand-held device. In the 19th century, visitors could learn about the splendors of the Cemetery by leafing through small guidebooks, also easily held in one’s hand. The volumes, which cost between 15 and 25 cents, ranged in size from 3 ¼ x 5 ½” to 5 by 7 ¾”. Readers could buy either softcover pamphlets or ornately embossed hardcover editions.

The wonderfully descriptive titles of some of Mount Auburn’s early guidebooks include: The Picturesque Pocket Companion through Mount Auburn Illustrated with Upwards of 60 Engravings on Wood (1839); Dearborn’s Guide Through Mount Auburn for the Benefit of Strangers Desirous of Seeing the Cluster of Monuments with the Least Trouble (1847); and A Handbook for Passengers over the Cambridge Railroad with a Description of Mount Auburn Cemetery Illustrated with Engravings and a Plan of the Cemetery (1858). Mount Auburn’s Historical Collections Department holds a rich collection of these delightful guides, and interested readers can also find editions of the volumes at the Boston Public Library as well as fully digitized texts on Google books.

“A visit to the local cemetery was considered de rigueur for the tourist, and the popular press carried numerous articles on these romantic burial grounds,” historian Thomas Bender explains about America’s early rural cemeteries.[1] By 1849, reportedly tens of thousands of people were visiting Mount Auburn in a single season. Guidebooks to the Cemetery proved so popular that many were reprinted or revised, sometimes annually. Revised editions include additional illustrations and descriptions of new memorials. The first edition of Dearborn’s Guide Through Mount Auburn (1847), for example, consists of 23 pages with 10 engravings, while its twelfth edition (1858) contains 55 pages with 82 engravings. Nathaniel Dearborn, an engraver and publisher, issued this popular guide until his death in 1852. The name of Dearborn’s son, Nathaniel S. Dearborn, also an engraver and printer, appears on subsequent editions.

Inside some guidebooks, readers would find foldout maps, complete listings of the Mount Auburn’s hills and avenues, suggested routes, the names of proprietors and their lot numbers, and instructions for the purchase and care of lots. Ads that appear in some guidebooks feature various vendors for items related to the cemetery trade, including marble works, iron fences, and even ornaments for preserving the hair of a loved one.

As their titles denote, the volumes feature engravings of significant monuments, tombs, and scenic vistas. Well-known illustrators such as James Smillie and William H. Bartlett drew many of the delicate engravings, which are accompanied by detailed descriptions of the sites. Today book collectors, historians, scholars, and those curious about  Mount Auburn can comb through the small volumes to find a wealth of information about the 19th-century rural Cemetery and how the landscape transformed from year to year with the addition of new memorials, lots, and paths.

Filled with sentimental language in the form of poetry and essays, the guidebooks also reveal the deep affection inspired by Mount Auburn. “It was intended that the landscape function like literature in instilling particular sentiments in visitors,” Blanche M. G. Linden, author of Silent City on a Hill, notes. “Mount Auburn inspired numerous poems . . . moralistic essays, and travel narratives, which augmented its fame nationally and internationally, in turn inspiring the creation of similar ‘rural’ cemeteries modeled after it.”[2]

Authors, poets, ministers, and even publishers like Dearborn himself contributed to the volumes. Opening to the title page of The Picturesque Pocket Companion through Mount Auburn (1839), readers could draw inspiration from an illustration of the Egyptian Revival Gateway and accompanying verse: “Yes, lightly, softly move! There is a power, a presence, in the woods; A viewless being, that, with life and love, Informs these reverential solitudes.”[3]

Celebrating the sacred nature of Mount Auburn’s landscapes, the literary pieces coupled with the splendid illustrations served as a practical roadmap as well as a philosophical guide to the garden of graves. As Levi Merriam Stevens notes in A Handbook for Passengers over the Cambridge Railroad, his goal was “to lead the visitor through the most interesting portions of the Cemetery, to call attention to every thing on the route worthy of observation, and thus enable him to view Mount Auburn as it is—as Nature, Art, and Affection have made it.”[4]

by Melissa Banta, Historical Collections Consultant



[1] Thomas Bender, “The ‘Rural’ Cemetery Movement: Urban Travail and The Appeal of Nature,” The New England Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 2 (June 1974), p. 196.

[2] Blanche M. V. Linden, Silent City on a Hill: Picturesque Landscape of Memory and Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007, p. 239.

[3] The Picturesque Pocket Companion through Mount Auburn Illustrated with Upwards of 60 Engravings on Wood, Boston: Otis, Broaders and Company, 1839, frontispiece.

[4] Levi Merriam Stevens, A Handbook for Passengers over the Cambridge Railroad with a Description of Mount Auburn Cemetery Illustrated with Engravings and a Plan of the Cemetery. Boston: Bricher and Russell, 1860, p. 29.

About the Author: Melissa Banta

Consulting Curator, Historical Collections & Archives View all posts by Melissa Banta →


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