Whose Cemetery is it Anyway?

While you’ve been shopping for presents, sleeping off your New Year’s hangover, or shoveling out the Snowpocalypse, curious things have been going on at Forest Hills Cemetery—or, rather, the Forest Hills Educational Trust—well, actually, at the uncomfortable intersection between the two. It appears that the Cemetery board and the erstwhile Educational Trust staff had very different ideas of how people ought to use Boston’s “magnificent park-like setting.” Now, the Forest Hills Educational Trust (FHET) staff is gone.

Just to be clear, the Cemetery board actually runs the Forest Hills Cemetery; the Educational Trust is a friends group, which was founded to “preserve, interpret, enhance, and celebrate historic Forest Hills Cemetery.” It’s hard to piece together exactly what happened from afar, but there are clues in this piece from the Jamaica Plain Gazette. At the end of December, long time Trust Executive Director Cecily Miller stepped down, and the Trust’s other two part-time staff members were “let go.”

The FHET staff smackdown wasn’t for lack of money; rather, according to Miller, “The cemetery [management] is very supportive of some of the trust’s programs like the Lantern Festival and history tours, but maybe it doesn’t see the arts programs or cultural programs as integral to its mission.”  That statement is a bit odd given what a spectacular job the FHET has done attracting people to the cemetery; take a look at the FHET staff’s farewell message or the Events Archive for 2010 and see what a vibrant place Forest Hills had become.

Now, the Forest Hills Educational Trust has shut down all of its programming. According to the Trust site, “The Trust Board has temporarily suspended programs to engage in strategic planning.”  My guess is that “temporarily” means “indefinitely,” which is a kind way of saying “forever.” That means no concerts, no poetry readings, no guided walks, and no Lantern Festival. Forest Hills will be nice and quiet again, without all those pesky live people wandering through. I can understand that arts and cultural programs aren’t the first duty of a place of the dead, but did they actually conflict with Forest Hills Mission?  If not, why the pressure to close it down?

Bob McLeod, FHET chair and a former member of the separate Forest Hills Cemetery Board of Directors, commented in the Jamaica Plain Gazette,

“‘In perpetuity’ is a very long time. Time is on your side [with a cemetery]. If you don’t accomplish something next year, you could do it the year following, or in five years,” he said. “That’s where this whole planning effort comes in. It’s important to understand how to do it in a way that suits both organizations…The boards have already started meeting towards that goal.”

That’s a very reasonable way to think about a cemetery, but it’s a terrible way to think about an active community arts program which depends on living people. With the departure of the entire staff, the FHET has lost years of accumulated experience, personal contacts with artists and community organizations, and momentum. What McLeod calls “planning” is the deliberate destruction of a very popular series of programs—and for what purpose?

To be fair, there have been a conflicts between the Forest Hill’s mourners needs for space for quiet reflection and the visitors’ desires for fun in one of Boston’s most beautiful landscapes for more than 150 years. As the Rappaport Institute’s Heart of the City” site on Forest Hills says:

“In the mid 1800s, garden cemeteries were ‘so popular for picnics and other public outings that they set the stage for the development of the great urban parks’ (Fairbanks, The Art of Forest Hills, 1998, p698). This cemetery was no exception… Forest Hills was so popular when it was first established, and brought such a massive number of visitors to the area, that the railroad company was prompted to change the name of the nearest station to ‘Forest Hills.'”

William August Crafts wrote in his “Reveries at Forest Hills” in 1860,

“Divers[e] are the visitors to the garden cemetery… Some come flitting through its shady avenues with no thought save of the great living world without, its fashion and folly, its ceaseless commotion and frivolous pursuits… And some… come with hearts saddened with the sufferings of the world, or mourners who have laid here the beloved dead.”

But this wasn’t a problem, according to Crafts, because Forest Hills was a place that could transform visitors.

“A few—nay, not a few, coming with light step or crusted hearts, delaying their steps awhile by the flowery grave or the beautiful monument, are touched by better feelings, purer thoughts and higher hopes, and carry home with them lessons which may, perhaps, be sometimes forgotten in the noise of the world, but which will never be effaced.”

Those “better feelings, purer thoughts, and higher hopes,” were one of the major reasons 19th-century Bostonians built garden cemeteries. Both Mount Auburn and Forest Hills were supposed to change people, to bring them closer to God and heal them through contact with beauty. You didn’t have to come to Forest Hills intending to contemplate your role in creation; simply being in the place would inspire you to spiritual awakening.

The intent of Forest Hills Cemetery’s founders was to welcome as many visitors as possible. The FHET staff carried out this vision, attracting thousands of Bostonians to Forest Hills Cemetery to contemplate their roles in creation through art, music, and rituals including the Lantern Festival and the Day of the Dead. Bringing people to Forest Hills is integral to the cemetery’s mission, even if  simply being in Forest Hills today isn’t enough to spiritually revive our modern internet-addled souls.

Perhaps the FHET Board believes that cemeteries are supposed to be silent, dull, gloomy places which eventually fall into neglect and ruin, not anywhere that anyone wants to go. If so, here’s a nice model for Forest Hills.

If you have a different vision for Forest Hills Cemetery’s future, fill out the FHET’s planning survey right now.

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