In the Words of Edward Everett, Mount Auburn’s Early Advocate

July 1, 2021

Born in Dorchester, Massachusetts Edward Everett (1794-1865) achieved national renown as an orator and politician of the Civil War era. History remembers him for his speech, approximately 13,000 words, at the Gettysburg National Cemetery in 1863. President Abraham Lincoln followed Everett with his 272-word Gettysburg Address. Everett then famously wrote to Lincoln, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself, that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”[1]

Not as well-known is the role Everett’s eloquence and support played in the creation of Mount Auburn Cemetery. Formerly chair of Greek literature at Harvard and pastor for a Unitarian church in Boston, Everett also became a founder and a trustee of Mount Auburn.[2] He was on the Cemetery and Garden Committee of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society to establish a cemetery outside of Boston in 1831. Other members of the committee, and founders of Mount Auburn, included the physician and botanist Jacob Bigelow, and politician and horticulturist Henry A. S. Dearborn.

Everett, Bigelow, and Dearborn promoted the establishment of a rural cemetery outside of the city center that would provide a practical solution to the need for burial space in Boston and promote the art and science of horticulture in a designed landscape. In urban burying grounds, Everett wrote, graves were “indecently crowded together, and often, after a few years, disturbed; . . . In the public graveyard it is not always in the power of an individual to appropriate a single place of burial, space enough for the purposes of decent and respectful ornament.”[3]

In June 1831, the Massachusetts state legislature granted permission for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society to purchase real estate for a “Rural Cemetery or Burying Ground, and for the erection of Tombs, Cenotaphs, or other Monuments, for, or in memory of the Dead; . . . and to plant and embellish the same with shrubbery, flowers, trees, walks, and other rural ornaments.”[4] Both Everett and Dearborn were serving in the Massachusetts House of Representatives at the time. As Everett explained, from this legislative act, Mount Auburn was “placed under the protection of the laws, and consecrated to the perpetual occupancy of the dead.”[5] The act represented a reassuring piece of legislation for the people of Boston needing burial space.

The History of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society noted that the idea of a rural cemetery “was entirely new. In some cases it was met with lukewarmness, in others with prejudice, in others with direct opposition; for the inhabitants of Boston had been accustomed to bury their dead within the city, or in the village graveyards; but now they were asked to convey the precious dust of their loved ones to the recesses of what seemed to them a distant wood.”[6] As a way of garnering public acceptance, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society asked Everett, a trusted public figure known for his love of oratory, to write about the characteristics and purposes of the new Cemetery for the Boston newspapers. Everett eloquently described the distinguishing features of the 72 acres bordering on Cambridge and Watertown that were purchased for the site:

The spot, which has been selected for this establishment, has not been chosen without great deliberation. . . . It stands near a fine sweep in [the] Charles River. It presents every variety of surface, rising in one part into a beautiful elevation, level in others, with intermediate depressions, and a considerable part of the whole covered with the natural growth of wood. In fact, the place has long been noted for its rural beauty, its romantic seclusion, and its fine prospect.[7]

Lush landscape view of a pond with trees, tombs, and a man standing, back to us, in right foreground. At the far end of the pond are two tombs.
Forest Pond, James Smillie, engraving, 1847.

Everett agreed the Cemetery should be called Mount Auburn, as suggested by Bigelow.[8] He underscored the Cemetery’s spiritual mission in taking “affectionate and pious care of our dead.”[9]  

Here it will be in the power of everyone, who may wish it . . . to deposit the mortal remains of his friends, and to provide a place of burial for himself . . . surrounded with everything that can fill the heart with tender and respectful emotions; beneath the shade of a venerable tree on the slope of the verdant lawn, and within the seclusion of the forest; removed from all the discordant scenes of life. . . . When it shall be laid out with suitable walks, and the appropriate spots shall be adorned with the various memorials which affection and respect may erect to the departed, what object in or near Boston will be equally attractive?[10]

Mount Auburn, Everett also argued, played a role in creating a national identity for the young nation by erecting monuments to the memory of those “whenever and wherever they have died.”[11] Everett, who later became Governor of Massachusetts, Minister to England, Secretary of State, Senator, and President of Harvard, died in Boston in January 1865 at age 71. He is commemorated with a rose granite monument at Mount Auburn—a place, as Everett wrote, that would evoke “that sentiment of tenderness towards the departed” and touch “a chord of sympathy which vibrates in every heart.”[12]

Classical pink granite pedestal monument, inset with marble panels of inscription. Wreaths with blue ribbons and small American flag at the base.
Edward Everett Monument, Lot 17 Magnolia Avenue

[1] Edward Everett to Abraham Lincoln, November 20, 1863 in Mathew Mason, Apostle of Union: A Political Biography of Edward Everett (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 304.

[2] Everett received an M.A. from Harvard Divinity School and Ph.D. from the University of Göttingen, Germany.

[3] Edward Everett, “Address Published in the Boston Papers, 1831,” in Jacob Bigelow, History of the Cemetery of Mount Auburn (Boston and Cambridge: James Munroe and Company, 1860), 137-138.

[4] William Calhoun, Speaker, Legislature of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, June 22 1831 in Massachusetts Horticultural Society, Transactions of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society 1829-1838 (Press of Isaac R. Butts-Wilson’s Lane), 73. The act was passed in the House of Representatives on June 22, 1831 and in the state Senate on June 23, 1831.

[5] Everett, “Address,” 135-136.

[6] Massachusetts Horticultural Society, History of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, 1829-1878 (Boston: Printed for the Society, 1880), 74.

[7] Everett, “Address,” 134.

[8] See letter from Edward Everett to Jacob Bigelow, June 30, 1831, in George Edward Ellis, Memoir of Jacob Bigelow, M.D., L.L. D. (Cambridge: John Wilson and Son, University Press, 1880), 73.

[9] Everett, “Address,” 142.

[10] Everett, “Address,” 138-139, 140.

[11] Everett, “Address,” 142.

[12] Everett, “Address,” 142. Everett is also commemorated by a bronze life-size statue designed in 1866 by sculptor William Wetmore Story, son of Joseph Story (the Supreme Court Justice and a founder of Mount Auburn). Initially erected in Boston Public Garden in 1867, Everett’s statue stands today in Richardson Park in Dorchester, Massachusetts.

About the Author: Melissa Banta

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


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