“Mount Auburn Cemetery in the Spring,” by Susan M. Schmidt

“Spring,” Larry Raskin

When I heard BOLLI was offering several outdoor classes this spring, I was ecstatic. This would mean that I could shut off my computer, remove myself from the couch and head off to the great outdoors, but only if I scored a spot in the class lottery! As the Gods of Luck would have it, I won a spot and enrolled in Helen Abrams’ Mount Auburn Cemetery in the Spring, a course which Helen was well-qualified to lead, since she has been a docent there for over 14 years. Our class would Zoom together for two sessions and walk the Cemetery’s hills and dales the other three.

Our first class was virtual. Helen allowed all 15 of us to introduce ourselves and provided a background history of Mount Auburn Cemetery. She explained that Mount Auburn was more than just a cemetery. Dedicated in 1831, it was the first garden cemetery in the United States. It has over 175 acres and is classified as an arboretum and bird migration spot, as well as a National Historic Landmark. We learned about the development and planning of the Cemetery and its role as a model for future landscape garden cemeteries. Mount Auburn designers Henry Dearborn, Jacob Bigelow, and Alexander Wadsworth drew inspiration from the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Helen Abrams

At our first outdoor class, we gathered in front of the Visitor Center in fabulous weather to chat in-person and then headed off, maps in our hands and cameras over our shoulders, as Helen led us on a 90-minute tour. We walked the central portion of the Cemetery where we learned the histories of some famous “residents” and their burial sites. Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science was one. Hers is a huge, breathtaking, eight-granite colonnade memorial overlooking Halcyon Lake. We were also treated to an unexpected viewing of some of the transient winged residents, including a Barred Owl, perched in a tree in the Dell area of the Cemetery. As we gazed up at him, we were not sure “who” was more excited to see “who!” Before we knew it, our 90-minute tour was over, and we “departed” until the following week.

For our second tour, we gathered once again in wonderful weather and this time took a different path to the northeastern section of the Cemetery. Helen again shared histories and photos of famous residents” including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and George & Josephine Ruffin. She also showed us new and contemporary gravesites and markers, including the Bozkurt Family site, done in clear plastic Fleur-de-Lis surrounded by pink dianthus, a “Silver Door” sculpture to honor Manuel V. Leite, and the “Sun & Moons” sculpture adjacent to the grave of acclaimed architect, Ben Thompson. We also walked through some of the newer cremation gardens, one of which is in the Spruce Knoll area. Helen treated us to views of many of her favorite trees and flowering shrubs, including bald cypress, Kentucky coffee tree, paper birch, weeping katsura and a saucer magnolia in full bloom. The saucer magnolia (84+ years old) was planted following the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, which decimated many Cemetery trees.

The following week, upon arriving early for our third and final outing, I noticed two things from the confines of my car: the weather had become iffy with drizzling rain, and it was turkey mating season! While it never rained hard enough to need an umbrella, I regretted not bringing it along to use as a shield against the amorous and aggressive turkeys strutting around the Cemetery in this, their “Season of Love!”

“Tree Bark,” photo by Helen Abrams

Once all had arrived, we followed Helen to the southwest section of the Cemetery and walked around Willow Pond, developed in 1929 to accommodate those looking for only one or two plots. Helen pointed out a weir, constructed in 2016 of native stone, used to hold storm water and protect both the plants and the animal habitats.

From there, our travels continued along winding paths, where we encountered numerous interesting burial sites and heard fascinating stories about those whose lives impacted our country’s history, literature, and science. To name a few, Margaret Fuller Ossoli, the first female foreign correspondent and an active Transcendentalist, who died at sea off Fire Island with her family; MIT’s Mildred Dresslehaus, known as the “Queen of Carbon,” who promoted women in science, and whose story was once told in a General Electric ad featuring kids dressed like her (wigs and all!); and famed baseball announcer, Curt Gowdy, at whose gravesite admiring fans had left behind both a baseball and a baseball card. On a humorous note, as we passed the Storrow Family’s gravesite a classmate surmised that James (of Storrow Drive fame) perhaps died “while trying to merge.”

Alas, all good things must come to an end and our class concluded in early May. As we all Zoomed in for the final session, Helen provided information on the Cemetery’s future plans, highlighted upcoming events, and showed us remarkable photos she had taken of various seasonal tree barks. Finally, please allow me to close by sharing some of the thoughtful comments from others who participated in this wonderful and enriching class.

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“Helen is a very vibrant guide. Her knowledge is matched only by her enthusiasm. We learned as much about the many trees and birds we saw as we did about the gravestones and funerary art, which she encapsulated in marvelous stories and anecdotes about the people buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery.” Kate Stearns

“Loved the diversity of material – historical and natural. And being outside with BOLLI members.” Miriam Goldman

“Helen presented an excellent summary of the significant monuments and history of the Mount Auburn Cemetery. When you combine those historic elements with the natural beauty of the surrounding landscape, the tours were amazing.” Steve Brand

“Mount Auburn Cemetery is a special place. My wife and I often walk its paths. This year we made a plan to spend eternity there! Through three visits and two Zoom sessions, Helen’s study group was an excellent way to experience the Cemetery– it’s landscapes, flora, history and “residents”. I found secluded places I had never seen, heard new stories about inspiring people and enjoyed wandering among the budding trees. A perfect way to spend five Monday afternoons in the spring!” Larry Raskin

“Mount Auburn Cemetery class was a complete delight from beginning to end. I would take the same class again in the fall if it is offered. Helen is a warm, welcoming, and very knowledgeable docent who shared stories of the Cemetery’s history, as well as information about trees, birds, flowers, funeral customs, and fabulous stories about people who are buried there. I only wish I could remember all of it!” Linda Chafets

One response to ““Mount Auburn Cemetery in the Spring,” by Susan M. Schmidt”

  1. Jennifer Coplon says:

    Wonderful article that highlights what sounds like a fabulous course for historians, Audubon lovers, horticulturalists, photographers,…I hope Helen offers this course again in the fall. Thanks for sharing, Susan and Helen.

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