November 21, 2023

One of the striking features you see when entering Mount Auburn is a Gothic chapel on a hill. Bigelow Chapel was named after its designer Jacob Bigelow, a principal founder and second president of the Cemetery. While the building has undergone multiple renovations and expansions through the years, it continues to embody Bigelow’s ideal of a picturesque chapel set within the landscape of the new rural cemetery.

In 1844, more than ten years after the founding of Mount Auburn, the trustees voted to erect the Cemetery’s first building: a non-denominational chapel for funeral services and the display of commemorative art [1]. In a blind competition, where designs by prominent Boston architects were attached to a wall, the trustees chose a sketch submitted by Bigelow.[2] A physician and botanist, Bigelow also held a fascination for architecture.[3]

Pencil sketch on yellow paper of side view of small chapel with spires and windows.
Proposed chapel for Mount Auburn, pencil sketch, Jacob Bigelow, c. 1844. Courtesy of Historic New England.

Opening image above: Bigelow Chapel, © Alan Ward, 1978.

Bigelow designed the rectangular building in the popular Gothic Revival style with soaring pinnacles, octagonal buttresses, and two expansive colored glass windows.[4] He collaborated with architect Gridley J. F. Bryant, who created working plans for the Chapel.[5] Around the outside upper perimeter of the building, Bigelow added an Egyptian motif in the form of a detailed band of lotus leaves, a symbol of beauty and eternity. Inside, the open interior included a wide central aisle and area in front for caskets. Rather than fixed pews, Bigelow created a flexible space with chairs that could be moved “as the occasion may require.”[6]

Sepia-toned photograph of chapel on the plateau of a hill looking over flat area below with hillside tombs.
Bigelow Chapel, carte-de-visite, George Kendall Warren, c. 1850s.

Completed in 1846 and built of Quincy granite, the striking new Chapel was located on the first hill near the main entrance, visible from Mount Auburn Street and other vantage points in the Cemetery. In her 1847 guidebook, Mount Auburn Illustrated, Cornelia Walter observed that the romantic Chapel “with its Gothic pinnacles pointing heavenward, forms a picturesque object, as a view of it is caught ever and anon from various turnings.”[7]

Engraving of chapel with spires and two figures in the foreground in front of an iron gate looking towards the chapel. Trees on each side frame the scene.
The Chapel, Mount Auburn Cemetery, engraving, James Smillie, 1847.

The building you see today is not the same one constructed in 1846. Mount Auburn trustees voted to rebuild the structure when veins of iron in the granite stone began to cause cracks, leaks, and stains. Whitcher and Sheldon of Quincy, Massachusetts undertook the reconstruction from 1853 to 1858. The building appeared identical to the first except that it measured six feet longer with additional exterior ornamental features.

Bigelow’s design for the Chapel incorporated two large stained-glass windows. The techniques of colored and leaded glass were still new to the United States at the time, and the Chapel windows represent rare examples of early stained glass in this country. Bigelow commissioned the firm of Ballantine & Allan in Edinburgh, who would also create the stained-glass windows for the Houses of Parliament. The south-facing Rose Window in Bigelow Chapel included a center panel surrounded by 12 petal-shaped windows and an outer ring of 12 circular panels interspersed with triangular pieces or kites.[8]

Color photograph of round stained-glass window with circular and petal-shaped windows and geometric designs.
The Rose Window, Meg L. Winslow, 2018.

The north-facing Chancel Window consisted of four lancets (tall, pointed windows) with two small rose panels above surrounded by triangular kite forms. In the large rose panel on top, a winged female figure carrying two infants floats against the dark blue sky. The picture is based on a popular image by Bertel Thorvaldsen’s from 1815, which depicts an angel holding two sleeping children. Bigelow chose the work, which he described in a letter to Ballantine & Allan as “the most beautiful and appropriate thing I have seen.”[9] In Mount Auburn Illustrated, Cornelia Walter wrote of the light coming through the Chapel’s stained glass and reminding us by its radiance of “the light and the darkness” and “mortality and immortality.”[10]

Color photograph of tall, colorful stained-glass window in stone chapel.
The Chancel Window, photograph © Julie L. Sloan, 2006.

Elegant granite curbing bordered the avenue leading to the Chapel, and the road was expanded to make room for horse-drawn carriages and hearses. In the 1870s, the lawn adjacent to the Chapel was set aside as a place for Decoration Day and other public assemblies.

Sepia-toned photograph of chapel in cemetery landscape and wide avenue with curbing in front.
Bigelow Chapel, cabinet card, c. 1850s.

The Massachusetts legislature granted cemeteries the right to incinerate bodies in 1898, and Mount Auburn became the first cemetery to operate a crematory in New England. In 1899, the Chapel was renamed the Crematory Chapel. Willard Sears, who designed Story Chapel at Mount Auburn and the home of Isabella Steward Gardner, oversaw the installation of crematory retorts, a gallery space on the lower level for the placement of caskets for cremation, and an elevator for lowering caskets from the upper level.[11] “The chapel, as renovated, is a triumph in the architectural treatment of a place for mortuary services,” the Boston Herald enthused.[12] In 1908, crypts in the east gallery of the Chapel were designed for cremated remains.[13]

Black-and-white newspaper printed image of interior view of chapel with chairs and plants with stained-glass window. A man stands in the right-hand gallery.
Interior View of Bigelow Chapel, American Architect and Building News, June 25, 1900.

In 1924, Allen and Collens, the Boston firm known for its Gothic Revival work, redesigned the interior of the building. The design incorporated a medieval, Gothic style, reflecting a return to a more traditional setting for funeral services, which were increasingly being held in the Chapel.[14] In 1936, the trustees renamed the building Bigelow Chapel in honor of Jacob Bigelow.[15] Entering the building today, your eye is drawn into the sacred space by the magnificent stained-glass windows. The nave (central area) runs the length of the Chapel with steps that lead up to the chancel area with its stone altar. To the left of the nave is a columbarium with wall niches for urns. Small stairways to either side of the entrance door lead to upper galleries with columbaria.

Color photograph of interior view of stone chapel with center aisle, wooden chairs to either side of the aisle, and a large round stained-glass window.
Bigelow Chapel interior with Rose Window, © Robert Benson, William Rawn Associates, 2019.
Color photograph of interior view of stone chapel with center aisle, wooden chairs on each side of the aisle, and a tall stained-glass window above the altar.
Bigelow Chapel interior with Chancel Window, © Robert Benson, William Rawn Associates, 2020.

Bigelow Chapel Lawn, relandscaped in 1995, includes a Victorian-style garden adjacent to the entrance of the building. Public programs and private ceremonies, including many weddings, have taken place in the inviting space.

Color photograph of exterior view of front of chapel with lawn, trees, and plantings in front.
Bigelow Chapel Lawn, Jennifer Johnston, 2014.

In 2018, the building underwent another major revitalization and installation of a state-of-the-art crematory with more fuel-efficient retorts. William Rawn Associates designed an extended glass-enclosed pavilion around the Chapel. The addition, which provides space for a viewing room and events, offers sweeping vistas of Mount Auburn’s landscape. During the annual Winter Solstice event, visitors make evening pilgrimages to Bigelow Chapel where they watch the magnificent light and animation artwork by the MASARY Studios play across the building’s exterior and participate in a candle-lighting ceremony inside the Chapel.

Color photograph of exterior of chapel at night illuminated with circular patterns of light.
Bigelow Chapel, Winter Solstice, MASARY Studios, © Aram Boghosian, 2022.

In the original 1843 plans, Mount Auburn trustees expressed their desire for “a chapel . . . to be built in a chaste style & taste . . . and upon a plan which will admit of great additions and enlargements at a future period, without injury to the symmetry and proportions of the original building.”[16] The nineteenth-century Chapel—rebuilt, renamed, and renovated through the years—continues to maintain its ethereal character and to serve as an inspirational symbol and gathering place commemorating all stages of life.

Color photograph of side exterior of chapel at twilight with interior glass pavilion lit up and gravestones in the foreground.
Bigelow Chapel, © Robert Benson, William Rawn Associates, 2019.

[1] Early statuary in Bigelow Chapel included figures in Massachusetts history: John Winthrop, the first governor of the state; James Otis, a Patriot and lawyer; John Adams, statesman and President of the United States; and Joseph Story, Supreme Court Justice and first president of Mount Auburn. The statues were later moved to the Cemetery’s Administration Building, and in 1934, to make room for more administrative offices, they were donated to Harvard University.

[2] Other structures designed by Bigelow at Mount Auburn included the Egyptian Revival Gateway, Washington Tower, and the Sphinx.

[3] Bigelow’s book, Elements of Technology, focused on his lectures at Harvard on engineering, physics, and industrial design.

[4] A similar Gothic Revival building, Gore Hall, was built at Harvard in 1838.

[5] Rogers, Richards, and Munn of Quincy, Massachusetts constructed the building.

[6] Jacob Bigelow, A History of the Cemetery of Mount Auburn (Boston and Cambridge: James Munroe and Company, 1859), 46.

[7] Cornelia W. Walter, Mount Auburn Illustrated (New York: R. Martin, 1847), 37.

[8] The original center piece of the Rose Window included a scene of two cherubs copied from Raphael’s Madonna de San Sisto. During the 1924 renovations to the Chapel it was replaced with a geometric pattern based on medieval rose window forms.

[9] Jacob Bigelow to Ballantine & Allan, 14 Jun. 1845, Mount Auburn Historical Collections & Archives.

[10] Walter, 37-38.

[11] The interior wall was finished with fire-prof tile.

[12] Boston Herald, May 7, 1900.

[13] In the 1970s, a one-story ground-level annex on the west side served as a working crematory.

[14] Mount Auburn Annual Report for 1923.

[15] Bigelow Chapel was the primary building on the Cemetery grounds until the construction of Story Chapel in 1898.

[16] Meeting of the Mount Auburn Cemetery Trustees, Friday, September 29, 1843. See Bigelow, A History of the Cemetery of Mount Auburn, 45.

About the Author: Melissa Banta

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

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