LESS THAN 10 MILES from Mount Auburn is Forest Hills Cemetery. Enter the elaborate Gothic Revival gate at Forest Hills and meander past a manicured green toward the hanging branches of a weeping birch tree and you won’t see any graves. Forest Hills opened in 1848, stemming from the popularity of Mount Auburn. It was founded by Henry A. S. Dearborn, who helped design Mount Auburn and was the first president of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Though technically not part of Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace, the string of parks unveiled a generation after Dearborn, Forest Hills makes up a significant chunk of green space between what is now Arnold Arboretum and Franklin Park.
The nearby Forest Hills tram station was one of the first built in the city, necessary to accommodate all the visitors to Forest Hills. According to Cecily Miller, director of the Forest Hills Educational Trust, folks came not only for a stroll, but also to gawk at the large memorials atop the graves of Boston’s most powerful and wealthy citizens.
“Victorians enjoyed touring the monuments of the rich and famous in the way that, today, we enjoy seeing the homes, art collections or fashions of celebrities,” Miller says.
These weren’t sweet little plaques atop a headstone, but large-scale sculptures created by the finest artists of the time. Walk over to the gravesite of George Robert White, one of the most affluent Bostonians at the time, and you’ll fine a bronze winged angel created by none other than American sculptor Daniel Chester French, the man who designed the celebrated Abraham Lincoln statue within the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington, D.C. Thus, these garden cemeteries were the country’s first city parks as well as the country’s first open-air art museums.
Contemporary sculpture of mosaic-sided obelisks and carved tree seats now mingle on the grounds with the heady stuff of yesteryear. Occasional joggers run on the wide streets, joined by bikers who are allowed to ride up and down the undulating hills. The bevy of activity continues around Lake Hibiscus, where families picnic and stare at the great blue herons standing on their stilt-like legs in the shallow water. Similar to the Forest Hills entrance-way, there are no sites around the sprawling shores of the lake, so you quickly forget you’re in a cemetery.
Forest Hills schedules many events during the course of the year. At the annual Lantern Festival, visitors make paper lanterns and float them on the lake at sunset in remembrance of someone special. There are also classical music concerts and readings to commemorate the great poets and playwrights buried here, such as E.E. Cummings, Anne Sexton and Eugene O’Neill.
Both Forest Hills and Mount Auburn are still active cemeteries, so it wouldn’t be prudent to play touch football atop the plots. Yet if you can overcome your initial resistance to visiting a graveyard and walk through these sacred spaces, Halloween or not, you’ll find that they have much more resonance than a simple walk in a park. It’s a tranquil place of contemplation, one where the headstones serve only as a warning to live your life to the fullest and, yes, to set your alarm early to see those bright yellow warblers.
Author of Outside Magazine’s Adventure Guide to New England, STEPHEN JERMANOK blogs daily at www.activetravels.com. He can often be found at a cemetery, taking long breaths, in search of a good dose of peace and solitude.