Victorian grief

The other day, I saw a link to photos of the storm damage at Mount Auburn Cemetery: apparently they lost approximately fifteen trees in last week’s hurricane, one of which was an oak tree older than the cemetery itself. It seemed particularly sad to see photos of toppled trees looming over tombstones, a garden of remembrance turned into a scene of natural devastation. In the larger scheme, fifteen toppled trees at a cemetery don’t matter much: Hurricane Sandy caused widespread suffering, injury, and the loss of both life and property, and there was no human harm at Mount Auburn since all the folks there are already dead. But a landscape like Mount Auburn is designed to create the illusion of immortality—perpetual care—so any damage or devastation that ruins that effect is particularly sad. What place is there for loss and change in a landscape intentionally crafted to create a pastoral image of eternity?

Richard Duca sculpture

I’ve been visiting Mount Auburn for over fifteen years, since I lived in Cambridge in the mid-1990s. When I first started going to Mount Auburn, I saw it as primarily a birding destination, riding the bus or my bike to the cemetery from Central Square, where I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center. On spring mornings when I didn’t have classes to teach, I’d go on early morning walks led by members of the Brookline Bird Club, walking at the front of the group in order to eavesdrop on whatever birds the quiet leaders were listening to, all the chips and twitters of migrating warblers sounding the same to my lead ears. As 9:00 a.m. approached, the group gradually waned as members left to find their cars and head off to work, but I’d stay until the end, finally heading back to the bus or my bike so I could ride into Harvard Square for breakfast.

Sleeping angel

I’d always go to the Greenhouse Café, where I’d sit by myself a tiny, crowded table: all the space they could afford for a party of one. The more sociable members of the BBC lingered at the back of the group and presumably went off to have breakfast together, but either busing or biking to the Greenhouse Café by myself was simply part of my preferred birding ritual. While I sat by myself waiting for my breakfast—fried egg and cheese on a toasted bagel with a side of the Greenhouse Café’s thin-sliced home fries—I’d write up that morning’s field notes: the birds I’d seen, the birds I’d heard, and any other noteworthy insights I’d gleaned by walking at the head rather than the tail of the group, like how to tell oaks from maples from a distance in the spring (oaks leaf later).

Winding path

I no longer have those field notebooks, I’ve forgotten most of the lore I learned on those walks, and the Greenhouse Café has since closed. In the larger scheme of things, these losses are insubstantial, as most our heartaches are. But through all the intervening years, Mount Auburn has remained the same: the place where I took the bus or biked from Central Square is the same as the place where I now journey by car from Newton. In all the intervening years, Mount Auburn Cemetery has preserved the illusion of permanence: the same weathered stones, the same spring bird walks, the same faithful throng of birdwatchers breaking naturally into clusters of concentration, with the quiet birders whose ears are perpetually attuned to chirps and twitters at the head of the group, and the chatty conversationalists in the rear. Whether or not I have the time now to join them, those spring walks at Mount Auburn continue without me, and I take comfort in that fact.

Winslow Homer's grave

I don’t have any family or friends who “live” at Mount Auburn, but this past spring I went on a walk with Claire Walker Leslie, whose parents are buried there. Mount Auburn figures prominently in Claire’s nature journals and published books: there’s no better place in Cambridge to go birding, admire trees, or spend an afternoon quietly sketching. Mount Auburn is a garden of remembrance for me because I’ve spent so much time there: my memories of the cemetery center around what I’ve done, not whom I’ve visited. But for those who have family or friends interred at Mount Auburn, the cemetery’s pull is bittersweet: a place of tranquil beauty that is also a landscape of loss.

Mourning his master

When I took that walk with Claire Walker Leslie, I hung back from the group at one point to stop at the stone I’ve claimed as Reggie’s grave. I had no desire to share why this particular stone—the grave of a stranger—wields a particular pull: any communing I do there is no different from the quiet remembrance I observe when doing the morning dishes and contemplating an empty dog pen. Cemeteries are special, I think, because they (like memorials) are a place where it’s appropriate to observe one’s private grief in public, so the shared landscape we walk with others is personalized according to our own proclivities. Although you and I might stroll the same cemetery together, our emotional understanding of that landscape is necessarily unique.

Mary Baker Eddy monument

It’s important to have spaces set aside for the private business of grief and remembrance, just as it’s important to have spaces dedicated to prayer and worship. Although you and I might enter the same house of worship, our spiritual experience of that sanctuary might be distinctly different. Both cemeteries and houses of worship are wide enough, I think, to tolerate such radical diversity: both cemeteries and houses of worship are large enough to hold our collective hopes and heartbreaks. It saddens me to know the landscape at Mount Auburn Cemetery will be different the next time I go there, marred by stumps and limb-scars, but it heartens me to think the place itself will endure. Storms may rage and trees may fall, but remembrance lives on.

I took these photos last year, during a Christmas Day stroll at Mount Auburn Cemetery, which I’d blogged here.