Mount Auburn Cemetery: Cambridge and Watertown, Massachusetts


Mount Auburn, the first "rural" landscaped cemetery in the U.S., not only changed how America thought about death, burial practices, and commemorating the dead, it also launched the 19th century rural cemetery and public park movements.

Designated Area

The cemetery is bounded by Mount Auburn Street on the north, Coolidge Avenue on the south and east, Grove Street on the south and west, and Sand Banks Cemetery on the west.

During autumn, Mount Auburn Cemetery's beautiful landscape displays a palette of colors from a variety of trees including Japanese maple, White Oak, and Sourwood. Photo courtesy Mount Auburn Cemetery.

Planning Excellence

Dr. Jacob Bigelow conceptualized Mount Auburn in 1825 in response to concerns about burials taking place under churches and in overcrowded and poorly maintained burial grounds. The Massachusetts Horticultural Society used 72 acres to establish a new type of cemetery in 1831. The design, influenced by Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, was created largely by Henry Alexander Scammell Dearborn with assistance from Bigelow and Alexander Wadsworth.

Today Mount Auburn encompasses 175 acres, functioning as an arboretum and wildlife sanctuary as well as a place to bury and commemorate the dead. An exceptional collection of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants provide habitat for a variety of wildlife. Panoramic views of the cemetery, Boston, Cambridge, and beyond can be taken in from the top of the cemetery's 62-foot tall Washington Tower.

Recognized as one of the country's "most significant designed landscapes" and listed in the National Register of Historic Places as well as being a designated National Historic Landmark, Mount Auburn Cemetery draws 200,000 visitors annually. Among the most popular times of the year is the month of May, when birdwatchers arrive by the thousands for the spring migration.

Throughout its history Mount Auburn has been a nondenominational, non-exclusionary cemetery used by people of all races and faiths, from wealthy and prominent Bostonians to Civil War volunteer infantrymen.

The Friends of Mount Auburn hosts approximately 120 walking tours, lectures, and special events each year to celebrate the cemetery. Photo courtesy Mount Auburn Cemetery.

Defining Characteristics, Features

History, Community Involvement

  • Model for "rural" cemetery movement; nine major cemeteries designed after Mount Auburn within 15 years of cemetery's opening (1831)
  • Influenced America's late 19th century urban park movement; source of inspiration for New York City's Central Park
  • After opening becomes as popular with tourists as Niagara Falls and Mount Vernon
  • Adjacent property acquired, expanding cemetery to 110 acres by 1833; additional land acquisitions through time have resulted in present 175-acre site
  • Included in National Register of Historic Places (1975); designated a National Historic Landmark (2003)
  • Friends of Mount Auburn Cemetery established 1986; assists in the conservation and preservation of cemetery; more than 1,200 active members
  • Cemetery master plan completed (1993); addresses lack of space to continue development of traditional in-ground burials, as well as increasing pressures for additional recreational and contemplative areas
  • Master Plan recommendations include preserving natural and designed elements; existing monuments and structures; establishing landscape character zones; implementing horticulture policy
  • Nondenominational; more than 95,000 people are buried in the cemetery, with the addition of 500 individuals each year; development of new burial space continues
  • More than 900 persons from Civil War are buried or memorialized in cemetery


  • Garden styles include Victorian-era, contemporary, natural woodlands, formal ornamental
  • Approximately 5,000 trees representing almost 700 species; some oak trees predate cemetery
  • Many trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants tagged with scientific and common names
  • Salamanders, frogs, turtles, owls, and hawks live here year-round; resting area for migratory birds; designated an Important Bird Area by Massachusetts Audubon Society
  • Cemetery utilizes organic and sustainable horticulture methods
  • Environmental health of cemetery a primary concern since 1993 Master Plan

Monuments and architecture

  • The Egyptian Revival Gatehouse is first building using wood dusted with sand (1832); later rebuilt using Quincy granite (1842)
  • The Gothic Revival-style Bigelow Chapel originally built during 1840s using Quincy granite; rebuilt during 1850s; used for funerals, memorial services, and public programs
  • More than 44,000 monuments commemorate those buried; evolution of monument styles illustrates 180 years of changing tastes in funerary art and ideas about life and death
  • The 62-foot-tall Washington Tower (1852-54) displays Boston Granite style prominent during 19th century; affords panoramic views of Boston
  • Story Chapel and Administration Building built using Potsdam sandstone (1896-98); building used for funerals, memorial services, and Visitors Center
  • $2 million restoration of Bigelow Chapel (2005-2006) including replacement of slate roof, repointing of entire structure, rebuilding of chapel pinnacles, and conservation of historic stained glass window
  • Recently constructed greenhouse , recommended in 1993 Master Plan, uses state-of-the-art technology including open-vent roofing

Activities, self-guided programs

  • Hosts memorial services, funerals, wedding ceremonies, and private meetings
  • Accessible by car, bike, and public transportation; open to the public every day of the year
  • Cars, but not bicycles or motorcycles, allowed within the cemetery
  • Approximately 10 miles of paved roads, plus many additional walking paths; one- and two-mile walking path loops are clearly designated
  • Audio walking and driving tours; self-guided brochures; self-guided tours via smartphone app
  • Friends of Mount Auburn hosts walks, talks, concerts, and special events throughout the year
  • Mount Auburn loans parcel of land to Watertown Community Gardens to support local food and edible gardens movement (2012)

Spring is a popular time at Mount Auburn when visitors come to watch the spring bird migration and to appreciate the blossoming trees and shrubs. Photo courtesy Mount Auburn Cemetery.