Final Testament

A crowdsourced archive transcription project at one of the nation’s most historic cemeteries offers insight into 19th century landscape design.

By Zach Mortice

Mount Auburn’s roads and paths were laid out to highlight the landscape’s natural contours. Photo courtesy Mount Auburn Cemetery.

Among the surprises Meg Winslow has found amid 100,000 pages of digitized 19th century records from Mount Auburn Cemetery’s long history are documents detailing “perpetual care of the soil,” she says. As part of lot purchase contracts, people were paying up front for the maintenance of healthy soil alongside care of the grass and plantings and upkeep of headstones. Winslow, Mount Auburn’s Curator of Historical Collections and Archives, found documents from the 1830s that detail soil type and quality, making clear that the experience of Mount Auburn was always focused on horticultural expression.

Established in 1831, Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was the nation’s first rural cemetery, the synthesis of pastoral and carefully planted landscapes dotted with memorials, gravestones, and sculpture. It was a persuasive vision of how the living should honor the dead, as opposed to the crowded warrens of graves in churchyards that had predominated. This landscape type spread across the nation within a few decades, influencing the conception of the public park as another sort of pastoral reprieve from the dirty, brutish city.

The long and complex history of this continually evolving landscape is becoming clearer. A $42,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities is funding the transcription of these documents, which include letters, trustee minutes, and records from superintendents, sculptors, gardeners, and others. It’s a record that delves into historical funerary practices, landscape and memorial design, and environmental conservation at what is perhaps the most historic cemetery landscape in the nation.

The cemetery’s founders laid out a series of roads and paths that followed and enhanced the landscape’s natural terrain. Family lots and mature canopy trees define the cemetery’s early picturesque landscape. Photo courtesy Mount Auburn Cemetery.

Launched on April 15 of this year, the transcription of these documents by volunteer collaborators from their homes is extremely pandemic-compliant. The grant will offset the cost of transcription software and administrative staff time. After starting with a small handful of transcribers, in May and June Mount Auburn crowdsourced the initiative, opening up the transcription process to everyone. Since then, about 80 volunteers from 10 nations have signed up, churning through 400 pages a week. So far, this team has transcribed more than 1,800 pages. “It’s just taken off,” Winslow says.

An 1855 invoice for purchasing trees. Image courtesy Mount Auburn Cemetery.

The cemetery is using as a transcription platform to distill the flowing and ambiguous handwriting—19th century cursive—into typed words on a screen. After the initial transcription, cemetery staff give each page a second look, editing and including wiki links of places, people, names, landmarks, and more.

For almost 200 years, Mount Auburn has been designed and maintained with rigor and care. As a major piece of civic infrastructure, it became a top tourist attraction in the 19th century, and has attracted 250,000 visitors a year. It was conceived as both a memorial landscape and as an experimental horticultural garden, with roots in the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.

Mount Auburn Cemetery in summer. Photo courtesy Mount Auburn Cemetery.

With these historical records, “We will be able to write about pre-professional landscape design,” says Winslow. “These records show that it’s so much more than a beautiful green space. It’s been managed over time. Hills have been lopped off, wetlands filled in.”

Gus Fraser is Mount Auburn’s vice president of preservation and facilities, and wrote last year in an issue of Sweet Auburn, the magazine of the Friends of Mount Auburn: “Our responsibility as stewards of this historic landscape requires that we maintain a balance of thoughtful adaptation to shifting burial customs while simultaneously respecting our richly layered past.” Fraser added that “[b]y remaining active and relevant as a place for burial and commemoration, we complete the connection between the present and the past.”

A report (circa 1831) on laying out the Mount Auburn Cemetery grounds. Image courtesy Mount Auburn Cemetery.

The hope is that the transcriptions can fill out the cemetery’s sprawling history. Eleanor Gould, Mount Auburn’s vice president of horticulture and landscape, says Mount Auburn is an “ever-evolving, dynamic landscape that responds to cultural changes that include current landscape architects and designers.” And the transcription project might clear up a few misconceptions, namely that Mount Auburn as it appears today is purely a historic artifact. “Everyone comes in and says, ‘This is such a beautiful landscape. I’m so glad you’ve preserved it the way it always was,’” Winslow says.

The legacy and intent of Mount Auburn has remained steady even as design ideals and the landscape itself have not. “The initial vision, which was practical and aesthetic, of burying the dead and consoling the bereaved in a landscape of extraordinary beauty—that mission from 1831 is still the same mission,” Winslow says. “They made the first cemetery in the country for the living as well as for the dead.”

The Sphinx, Mount Auburn’s memorial commemorating emancipation and the end of the Civil War, looks upon Bigelow Chapel. Both the Sphinx and the chapel were designed by Mount Auburn founder Jacob Bigelow. Image courtesy Mount Auburn Cemetery.

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