The Rural Cemetery Vision Becomes Reality

June 1, 2011

The vision of Mount Auburn’s founders was to create an attractive and consoling garden for interment of the dead. Several locations were considered – including sites in Brookline and Boston – when a group of men led by Jacob Bigelow set out to find a suitable tract of land for the enterprise 180 years ago. 

Quite serendipitously, George W. Brimmer, a college friend of Bigelow, purchased a piece of land between Cambridge and Watertown known as “Stone’s Woods,” or “Sweet Auburn,” by the local college students, with the aim of preserving it around this same time.

The property seemed like an ideal setting for the creation of a rural cemetery, as it incorporated rolling hills and forest in a tranquil setting on the outskirts of town. Perhaps not least notably, Brimmer himself was willing to part with the land for the creation of such an endeavor. 

Just a few years earlier, in 1829, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society was incorporated and Bigelow hoped that the backing of this young and respected organization might make the idea of creating such a landscape more popular to the community.  A committee was formed and Bigelow wrote,

“On the eighth of June, 1831…it was voted expedient to purchase the estate offered by Mr. Brimmer, containing about seventy-two acres, – at six thousand dollars, in behalf of the Horticultural Society, as soon as one hundred subscribers for cemetery lots, at sixty dollars each, should be obtained.” (History of Mount Auburn Cemetery, 7).

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.” This land on the road from Cambridge to Watertown was selected by the Massachusetts Horticulture Society Cemetery committee due to its “scenery and natural advantages.” Mount Auburn President and Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story later commented at the consecration that “The natural features of Mount Auburn are incomparable for the purpose to which is now sacred.”

For years the wooded land and rolling landscape was used by students as a retreat from the city. Those same students named the area “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. 

By August of 1831, the founders of Mount Auburn had succeeded in selling 100 lots, the requisite for the Cemetery to become a reality. A board of managers was chosen that included Justice Joseph Story, Henry A. S. Dearborn, Dr. Jacob Bigelow, Edward Everett, George Brimmer, and others. A subcommittee was then appointed to acquire an accurate topographical survey of Mount Auburn and to report a plan for laying it out into lots and avenues. They employed Mr. Alexander Wadworth, Civil Engineer, to complete the task. 

The Consecration of Mount Auburn took place on September 24, 1831.

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