Within Mount Auburn Cemetery there are seven hills, a fact that at the time of Mount Auburn’s founding harkened back to the lore of ancient Rome that was so popular during the Victorian Era. In 1833, one of Mount Auburn’s seven hills became known as “Harvard Hill” when physician and philanthropist George Shattuck purchased land at Mount Auburn and then donated it to Harvard College. Though at the time Harvard already had designated burial space elsewhere in Cambridge, it was becoming over crowded, as were other burial grounds of the day. And so, on April 5, 1833, Harvard Hill received its first burial, Harvard Law School Professor John Hooker Ashmun, aged 33.
At first, the land was meant to be used for the burial of both students and professors. In fact, some of the earliest burials at Harvard Hill were for students who had died while matriculated at Harvard. These days, it may seem odd for a college or business to own burial space, but in the 19th century, this was a common practice. Prior to the mid to late 1800s, if a person died far from home, it was nearly impossible, for a variety of reasons, to transport their body home. As a testament to this, many of the slowly fading marble monuments scattered around the hilltop bear inscriptions that tell the stories of much loved students and professors who, dying far from home and all too soon, have had their monuments erected for them not by family, but rather their fellow classmates or colleagues.
With the advent of improved funeral technology and travel in the latter half of the 19th century, Harvard Hill was slowly being rendered irrelevant. Irrelevant, that is, until a few decades ago when Harvard Hill was transformed into what it is today- a unique time capsule of Harvard’s past and a modern testament to the Institution’s world-renowned role in academics. To this day, Harvard University is still the proprietor of Harvard Hill and burial in this special place is usually reserved for a select group of Harvard professors and affiliates. Recent burials have included some of the most influential academics of the modern era, such as philosopher John Rawls, his academic rival Robert Nozick, historian and political scientist Adam Ulam and playwright William Alfred.
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