Boston Cemeteries, Spirits, and Halloween

Woooo! It’s almost Halloween, or Samhain, the time when the veil behind the worlds is thin, and the spirits of the dead stalk through Boston area cemeteries—or, rather, through some of its cemeteries. Different cemeteries have very different spirits to them. While Forest Hills Cemetery is welcoming the dark quarter of the year with a Victorian Spiritualism Tour on Halloween and a Day of the Dead event next week, Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery is hosting…”Awash in Color – a fall foliage walking tour.” The book club is meeting next week if you need more excitement in your life.

Mind you, the Mount Auburn folks are discussing Gracefully Insane: Life and Death inside America’s Premier Mental Hospital by Alex Beam, which is not the most calming, heartwarming book I could imagine; and they are hosting a spiritualism talk on November 13. But Mount Auburn doesn’t host anything like Forest Hill’s Day of the Dead. Here’s the description from the Forest Hills web site:

“Join us for a traditional Mexican celebration of remembrance co-sponsored by Latin American folkloric performance group La Piñata. Based on the ancient traditions of Mexico’s indigenous peoples who believed that the souls of the dead return each year to visit their families, the Day of the Dead celebrates the continuous cycle of life and death, embracing cultures from all throughout the Americas. Enjoy a program of music and dance as individuals bring offerings of flowers, copies of photos, mementos, and traditional skull-shaped sugar candies to leave on a decorated candle-lit altar for those departed loved ones.”

Can you imagine this sort of thing happening in Mount Auburn Cemetery?  I didn’t think so.

It’s not clear when the cemeteries diverged. Mount Auburn was founded in 1831, Forest Hills in 1848. Both sites were largely designed by Henry A. S. Dearborn, and are styled as naturalistic “garden cemeteries” with weeping trees, rolling hills, granite outcroppings, and woods. Both cemeteries are chock-full of dead famous people—governors, generals, poets, playwrights, sculptors, captains of industry and so on—and are visited by thousands of tourists every year.

Yet somehow over the last 150 years these cemeteries have developed very different public presences. Forest Hills features an extensive collection of contemporary art on their Modern Sculpture path, hosts two large  public festivals each year—the Lantern Festival in July and the Day of the Dead—and regularly sponsors concerts and poetry readings. Mount Auburn has book clubs, historical lectures, and nature walks to observe the birds and trees on the site—but no public festivals at all.

But why? Why is Forest Hills such a hipster zone while Mount Auburn is so, er, quiet?  It might be the fact that Forest Hills is located in Jamaica Plain, an ethnically diverse community full of artists and inspiration, while Mount Auburn neighbors Harvard, or “World’s Greatest University” as Alex Beam puts in, where defending one’s reputation for excellence can take time away from pursuring new ideas.

But it also might have to do with the fact that Mount Auburn has greater natural resources than Forest Hills. While Mount Auburn may not host poetry slams, the cemetery is a major birdwatching destination in Boston, thanks to its varied environment and water sources. The landscaping staff has been doggedly adopting more ecological, sustainable landscaping techniques including reducing chemical use, planting lower-maintenance perennials to keeping, and recycling all plant materials on site.

Perhaps the difference is really just an artifact of being located in the city, not the suburbs. Forest Hills is a part of the local community’s culture; Mount Auburn’s radical environmentalism isn’t flashy or obvious as a dance of the dead, but their environmental practices are having a strong effect on the local ecology.

But which cemetery has the scarier ghosts?  I just don’t know!  You’ll have to visit to find out. Or you just forget about dead folks altogether and go to the Titus Sparrow Park Boo Bash. Would you rather spend time in the company of a deceased Revolutionary War general or a clown who will make you a pink balloon doggie? The decision is yours.

  One Reply to “Boston Cemeteries, Spirits, and Halloween”

  1. Ron Newman
    October 29, 2010 at 11:22 am

    A lot of what you see at Forest Hills Cemetery is the work of Cecily Miller, who used to run the Somerville Arts Council and has brought some of the same sensibility to the cemetery.

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