A cemetery, by nature, is a place where the past is always present. On September 1, 2021, I retired from Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on the twenty-eighth anniversary of the day I started employment there. I had arrived in 1993 as the director of horticulture, having a background in public garden management and degrees in horticulture and ecology. At first, I only noticed the natural landscape and the spectacular collection of trees. Mount Auburn, after all, occupies a unique space in the history of American landscape design: It served as inspiration for other pastoral cemeteries in the mid-nineteenth century and, subsequently, for urban green spaces like Central Park and the Emerald Necklace. I didn’t initially focus on the monuments and the other “cemetery” aspects of Mount Auburn.
About two years after my arrival, I gave a tour of Mount Auburn to Richard Harris, my major professor from graduate school at the University of California, Davis, who had authored a textbook on arboriculture. We stopped in Consecration Dell, a natural amphitheater in the center of the cemetery, where paths on the shaded slopes overlook a small pond. I explained that we had just initiated a project to restore this area to the woodland habitat that existed when the cemetery was founded in 1831. In fact, Mount Auburn’s first president, Joseph Story, delivered his consecration address in this very location, noting the importance of natural beauty when mourning loved ones. “What spot,” he asked, “can be more appropriate than this, for such a purpose.”
I described how the restoration would require a phased approach to remove all exotic plants, especially invasive species such as Norway maple (Acer platanoides), and replace them entirely with native species of trees, shrubs, and woodland groundcovers. I felt proud to describe to my mentor how the restoration plan would allow me to put into practice ecological management concepts that I had studied in graduate school. We happened to be standing next to a spectacular Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia) planted in 1939. I noted that we would not remove the stewartia just because it was an introduced species, but that, when the stewartia eventually died, we would replace it with a native. I also pointed out that the stewartia had a memorial plaque on it with the name and birth and death dates of a woman who had recently passed away.
As we talked, a woman who had been walking nearby came up to introduce herself. She was the daughter of the woman memorialized on the tree plaque. She told me that the family had chosen to purchase the plaque because Consecration Dell was one of her mother’s favorite spots. The woman said she visited frequently to think about her mother and thanked me for making Mount Auburn—and Consecration Dell itself—such a beautiful, uplifting, and inspirational place.
From that day forward, my relationship with the landscape changed. Talking to the woman beneath the stewartia, I came to understand the significance of Mount Auburn as a cemetery and the importance of serving our “clients” with compassion and sensitivity. The entire staff understands this—it is embedded in our culture. My colleagues have all had interactions with visiting family members similar to the one I experienced that day. These encounters motivate us to continue achieving the high standards of maintenance of the grounds—from the trees and gardens to the monuments and other built structures—in order to ensure that Mount Auburn Cemetery remains the beautiful and inspirational place that Joseph Story and the rest of our founders envisioned in 1831.
The successful restoration of the native woodland in Consecration Dell over the twenty-five years since that memorable conversation has been one of the highlights of my career. In place of the Norway maples and other invasive species that we removed, hundreds of native trees and shrubs and thousands of ferns and woodland groundcovers now provide a valuable habitat for the birds, salamanders, and other wildlife residents of Mount Auburn. And yes, the magnificent stewartia remains as well. I like to think that the landscape looks just like “the hill and the valley, the still, silent dell, and the deep forest” that Joseph Story described so long ago.
David Barnett was appointed president and CEO of Mount Auburn Cemetery in 2008. He retired from that position in 2021 confident that the course has been charted for a bright and successful future as an active cemetery, a historically significant cultural landscape, and a model of environmental stewardship.
Citation: Barnett, D. 2021. The Trees of the Silent Dell. Arnoldia, 78(5-6): 6–7.