Civil War memorial

Riddle me this: why is there a sphinx in the middle of Mount Auburn Cemetery?

Bigelow Chapel

On Monday my friend A (not her real initial) and I met in Cambridge, Massachusetts for a cemetery stroll before heading to nearby Watertown for the best pancakes in town. I’d never been to the Deluxe Town Diner; A had been to Mount Auburn Cemetery only once before, and then only briefly. It seemed a fair trade for me to show A around my favorite garden cemetery (and the nation’s first) before she initiated me into the culinary wonders of sour cream and buttermilk flapjacks and New York style potato pancakes. After all, we’ve made something of a tradition walking off potato pancakes, so it seemed only fair to broaden our horizons by finding another establishment that serves up the tasty goods.

But back to my initial question. In Greek mythology, the sphinx asked passersby a riddle, and those who could not answer were subsequently strangled. So, why is there a sphinx in the middle of Mount Auburn Cemetery?

Civil War memorial

Mount Auburn’s sphinx sits directly facing Bigelow Chapel: apparently, this is a Christian creature, not any sort of Greco-Egyptian pagan. And instead of commemorating anything remotely Greek or Egyptian, Mount Auburn’s sphinx is actually a Civil War memorial commemorating the Union dead. If you’re still missing the connection between sphinxes, the Civil War, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, you’re not alone: I wanted to show A this particular memorial precisely because it makes no sense. And where else in Massachusetts would you be able to ask your own questions of a sphinx before heading out for potato pancakes?

Civil War memorial

Truth be told, the reason there is a sphinx at Mount Auburn Cemetery has more to do with 19th century style than it does with the Civil War itself. Mount Auburn Cemetery was founded in 1831, and by the time its entry gate was rebuilt in 1843, Egyptian Revival was all the rage. When sculptor Martin Milmore was commissioned in 1871 to construct a memorial to the Union’s Civil War dead, he followed the prevailing style of the day and produced an impressive (but today, woefully anachronistic) monument. Whether or not there is any connections between sphinxes and the American Civil War, 19th century Victorians would have been impressed with a memorial that was both epic and monumental. It matters only to purists, I suspect, that Ms. Sphinx looks particularly Anglo, like any conventional 19th century American beauty.

Mary Baker Eddy memorial

Like any sculpture park, Mount Auburn Cemetery says a great deal about contemporary taste, the trend toward garden cemeteries marking a move from the bleaker spiritual vision of earlier cemeteries. Garden cemeteries such as Mount Auburn were designed to sooth the souls of mourners through park-like landscaping and beautifully sculpted memorials. Many of Mount Auburn’s more impressive monuments reflect a Neoclassical style that evokes a mood of tranquil serenity. Mary Baker Eddy’s memorial, for example, looks calmly reassuring whether contemplated across Halcyon Lake or viewed from below.

Mary Baker Eddy memorial

Manton Eastburn, Bishop of Massachusetts

That being said, though, part of the fun of strolling a garden cemetery lies in the element of scavenger hunt: who can find the most ostentatious, unusual, or exotic memorial, and what things can you find during this visit that you haven’t noticed in the past? On Monday, both A and I simultaneously remarked about a stone I don’t recall noticing before: the weighty marker for Manton Eastburn, the 19th century bishop of Massachusetts whose grave marker struck both A and me as looking exactly like a butter dish.

Once you’ve moved from Civil War sphinxes to ecclesiastical butter dishes, you’ve moved from the ridiculous to the even more ridiculous. By the time A and I made it to the ground-hugging gravestones on the grassy knoll overlooking Willow Pond on a (successful) search for the grave of B.F. Skinner, it was only natural we’d almost literally stumble upon the world’s most bloggable tombstone:

Begging to be blogged?

Bloggable grave markers notwithstanding, on Monday I spotted the creepiest cemetery stone ever: an anonymous Memento Mori which asks the sphinx-like riddle, “Who’s next to die?”

Your name here?