Boston’s Gardens of Hope, Peace, and the Dead

Copyright Patricia King PowersBoston doesn’t have much physical space for the dead; two recently-founded gardens near Government Center challenge us to tell if we have mental space for them either. Apart from the Baker Street Cemeteries founded in the 1930s’-40’s, Boston’s most recently established cemetery, Fairview, was founded in 1893. The city’s lack of space resulted in unsettling practices like keeping graves open until several bodies were found to fill them, and was a major impetus for creating Boston’s “garden cemeteries”: Mount Auburn Cemetery, founded 1831, and Forest Hills Cemetery, founded 1848.

At some point—I really don’t know when—the idea of mourning changed. Today, if you wish to honor the dead, you don’t need to find their bodies, or their ashes, or anything that ever actually touched the dead; all you need is their names. That’s the principle on thousands of veterans’ memorials all over the country commemorating the service of men and women whose remains will never be found, and that’s the idea behind the Garden of Peace and the Cancer Garden of Hope.

The Garden of Peace is a 7,000 square-foot garden dedicated to victims of homicide. In 2001, it was tucked behind 100 Cambridge Street, Boston, a two-minute walk from Government Center but virtually invisible to passers-by. The garden design is a dry river filled with stones. Each stone has a name. Some of the names are sadly famous; I spotted Matthew Eappen, the baby allegedly shaken to death by his nanny in 1997. There are also river birches and grasses and a sculpture titled “Ibis Ascending,” but you don’t really notice them.

Copyright Patricia King PowersOn June 19, the ribbon was cut for the construction of Cancer Garden of Hope on the Congress Street side of Government Center, not far from the New England Holocaust memorial. Technically, this is a garden of hope, not mourning. A Boston Globe “Your Town” article quoted founder Susan Zucker as saying, ‘‘I hope the garden will be a living tribute to those we’ve lost, but also a gathering place for people to celebrate being alive.’’ Still – I suspect most of the $100 bricks and $1000 stones are being donated by families in mourning.

It’s hard to say what the Cancer Garden of Hope will look like when it’s finished. The picture on the web site is small and sketchy, and comments on the Boston Globe website noted that the shady, windy location isn’t terribly plant-friendly. Visitors won’t get the experience of healing-through-nature that Mount Auburn’s founders sought. But that’s OK. The stones won’t mind.

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