A Fun-Filled Day at the Cemetery? Absolutely!

A group of eighth graders from Melrose attended a staged reading of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town’’ this week, performed by the Underground Railway Theater at Mount Auburn Cemetery.
A group of eighth graders from Melrose attended a staged reading of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town’’ this week, performed by the Underground Railway Theater at Mount Auburn Cemetery. –Mount Auburn Cemetery

When Watertown resident Melissa Thompson shot a panoramic view of the Boston skyline from the Washington Tower in Cambridge and posted it to Facebook, she received mixed reviews. “Why would you spend time at a cemetery?’’ one asked.

Thompson had shot the photo while enjoying a day with her family at Mount Auburn Cemetery , where 97,000 people are buried.

Visitors enjoyed panoramic views of Boston from the 62-foot granite Washington Tower at Mount Auburn Cemetery. The tower was completed in 1854. —Kristi Palma/Boston.com staff

Enjoying yourself in a cemetery may sound odd to some, but the concept is gaining ground, and the spaces are increasingly catering to non-mourners.

Leading the way is Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. Established in 1831, it is credited with beginning America’s rural cemetery movement; the business of death was conducted among a park-like setting that encouraged reflection, thanks to its natural landscaping and tasteful works of art.


Today, Mount Auburn’s 200,000 yearly visitors can go on bird walks (more than 200 species have been spotted there), taste wine, listen to lunchtime lectures, learn how to make wreaths, or take in spectacles like “A Glimpse Beyond,’’ during which 170 musicians and dancers performed while clad entirely in white. There are even birthday celebrations, complete with cake, for well-known internees like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

These events may not sound very cemetery-like. But experts beg to differ.

“People have stopped seeing it as morbid or freaky,’’ said Loren Rhoads, a taphophile (cemetery enthusiast) whose visits to about 1,000 cemeteries around the world informed her essay collection “Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel.’’ “You’d be amazed at how much life there is in a cemetery. Whether it’s butterflies or the birds singing. We’ve seen deer, wild rabbits…there’s just so much life going on.’’

A spring scene at Mount Auburn Cemetery. —Loren Rhoads

And, added Rhoads, “Cemeteries are doing a better job of promoting themselves. Since 2000, [they’re] kind of picking up [the] pace. Cemeteries are looking at different ways to bring people in and keep them as part of the community.’’

Some cemeteries are taking cues from Mount Auburn, which this weekend will host walking tours and productions of Thornton Wilder’s meditative “Our Town.’’


Rob Gregg, who leads the Vine Lake Preservation Trust, asked Mount Auburn vice president of cemetery and visitor services Bree Harvey to help him program Medfield’s 363-year-old Vine Lake Cemetery.

“I said, ‘There’s an opportunity here in Medfield to do this,’’’ said Gregg.

The trust, funded by the Medfield Cultural Council, formed five years ago and is made up of volunteers who restore graves, tend to the grounds, and, now, plan programming on the 31-acre site.

Vine Lake Cemetery in Medfield has ramped up its community programming in recent years. —Vine Lake Cemetery

This weekend, a group of fourth-grade Cub Scouts will go on a treasure hunt among the graves. And recently the granddaughter of 19th-century artist John Austin Sands Monks gave a presentation about her grandfather, who is buried at the cemetery and is best known for his depictions of sheep.

“We want to figure out how to engage new audiences,’’ said Gregg.

But do events like these in places marked for mourning cross the line?

“There certainly are people who do get upset when they are here to visit a grave and they have a hard time even finding a place to park,’’ said Harvey. “ [But] I would say more people are comfortable with the current level of activity here.’’

Lauren O’Neil, a graphic designer from Brookline, recently made her first visit to Mount Auburn, where she hoped to snap some pictures.

“I can understand how it can be insulting to someone who is literally here for a funeral to see people taking pictures,’’ said O’Neill.

About 500 burials take place in Mount Auburn over the course of a year.


“It’s at the top of our list not to offend anybody,’’ said Harvey. “Part of our ongoing challenge is we are still an active cemetery. We are definitely trying to encourage the visitors to come and fall in love with this place and connect with this place, but at the same time we are still responsible for keeping the tranquil setting for those coming for a funeral.’’

This is why Mount Auburn bans picknicking, bike riding, and dog walking, as well as photography of funerals.

Melissa Thompson’s husband, Brooks, has a grandfather buried at the cemetery and said he’s not offended by all the visitors or the programming.

Josie Thompson, 8, always asks to visit the famous Sphinx while spending time at Mount Auburn Cemetery with her parents Brooks and Melissa Thompson of Watertown. —Kristi Palma/Boston.com staff

“I think it’s great,’’ said Thompson. “It’s a beautiful space. A lot of people don’t take advantage of it.’’

The founders of Mount Auburn would, no doubt, be pleased with its community feel today, said Harvey. The cemetery’s mission statement

, which reflects the founders’ 19th-century vision, explicitly lays the space out as somewhere that “provid[es] comfort and inspiration to the bereaved and the public as a whole.’’

The welcome sign at Mount Auburn Cemetery. —Kristi Palma/Boston.com staff

But the Civil War, which happened three decades after Mount Auburn was established, changed America’s romanticized view of death, and cemeteries once again became places just to bury the dead. It only resumed its place as a venue for community gatherings in 1986, after the formation of Friends Of Mount Auburn. Harvey credits the group, which takes care of and promotes the cemetery, as being responsible for a “drastic change’’ in visitorship over the past several decades.

Now, these storied institutions are making the move into the 21st century.

Mount Auburn tweets photos and details of upcoming events from @MountAuburnCem. Vine Lake’s Gregg plans to roll out an app in 2015 that will assist people on tours. He’s created a Facebook page for the cemetery, but has yet to make the leap to Twitter.

“One thing at a time!’’ said Gregg with a laugh. “We’re not Mount Auburn.’’

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July 30, 2020 | 8:58 AM