Forest Hills Cemetery
95 Forest Hills Avenue Boston, Massachusetts 02130
Telephone: (617) 524-0128
Size: 250 acres
Number of interments: 99,000, as of 1998. No later figures are readily available. (See the final link below.)
Open: The cemetery grounds are open every day, including Sundays and holidays, from dawn to dusk.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Boston’s elite came out from the city to build summer homes and country estates beside Jamaica Pond. It made sense that they would want their own graveyard, too. New England Cemeteries: A Collector’s Guide acknowledges that Forest Hills is lesser known, probably from surviving in the shadow of Mount Auburn, but it is “unquestionably worth a visit.” I’d have to agree.
Founded in 1848, 17 years after Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery, Forest Hills Cemetery featured lovely artwork from the start. Its most famous sculpture stands right inside its gate. Death and the Sculptor by Daniel Chester French may be the most magnificent work of art I’ve ever seen in a graveyard. The large bronze combines relief work and statuary. Death is a stern-faced matron dressed in Grecian robes and a large-cowled cloak. She reminds me very much of Walter Crane’s Pre-Raphaelite “Winter” in A Masque of the Four Seasons. In French’s sculpture, Death has wings, but doesn’t carry a scythe or hourglass. She merely reaches her shapely arm out to touch the sculptor’s chisel. He’s in the middle of carving a relief of the sphinx and the pyramids, a reference to Martin Milmore, for whom this monument was made. (Milmore sculpted the Sphinx at Mount Auburn.) In French’s memorial to his friend, the sculptor twists to look over his shoulder, but his gaze is not directed at Death but beyond her. Into eternity, perhaps?
Across a sun-struck meadow stands a fabulous bronze angel. Her hair is rolled back from her no-nonsense face, bound by a circlet across her brow. Her powerful wings raise behind her. Garden of Memories identifies her as another of David Chester French’s works, his Angel of Peace.
French sculpted the monumental figure seated inside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. He also did the Minute Man who stands at North Bridge, Concord. Garden of Memories reports that he has six sculptures at Forest Hills.
Lesser known artists beautified the cemetery as well. I gravitated toward the graces: drapery clad women sculpted as permanent mourners. One of my favorites has her flowing hair wound in a partial bun, as if she’d been too distraught to fix it properly. She leans against a plinth topped by an urn, which she clasped lovingly in her arms. A number of stone women stand on tombs, a single hand pressed to their chests. One, whose direct gaze was seemingly unscarred by sorrow, hadn’t noticed the strap of her dress slipping off her shoulder. Elsewhere, Faith turned blind eyes upward as she cupped an anchor chain in her hands. Her gown, caressing every curve, slid dangerously low on both shoulders. The same was true of the bare-shouldered maiden on the Clapp tomb, who placed a floral wreath before a table reading “Life More Abundant.” Joyce Carol Oates, in her introduction to David Robinson’s Saving Graces, notes that these mourning statues behave “as if grief were a form of erotic surrender.”
A more demurely dressed angel with short cherubic wings held a round tablet, almost like a platter, which read, “The spirit shall return to Him Who made it.” I liked the sense of God as artist.
Forest Hills Cemetery serves as the final resting place of e. e. cummings, Anne Sexton, Eugene O’Neill, Revolutionary War generals, suffragette doctors, as well as the Red Scare martyrs Sacco and Vanzetti. Susan Wilson’s Garden of Memories: A Guide to Historic Forest Hills provides six possible walking tours, covering art, history, literature, and world events. The book is for sale at the cemetery office.
The cemetery is also a lovely arboretum. The native trees tend toward pines and evergreens. In the spring, flowering cherries and apples contrast to the bare dark gray shoulders of rock poking from beneath the topsoil. When I visited, the cemetery had drifts of forsythia in bloom, masses of sunny yellow flowers lining ridges. At one point, I found myself standing beneath an incense cedar: camera forgotten, simply inhaling.
Each year, Forest Hills hosts an exhibition of contemporary sculpture. When I visited, a towering blue wishbone with a gold capstone rose to the left of the main meadow: Linda Foss Nichols’ Aeolian Conduit. I wished for enough wind to hear if the giant harp truly did sing. In its shape and coloring, the wishbone implied the raising of hearts or lifting of hopes. It was a beautiful piece, my favorite of the new works we saw.
In the past, the cemetery has offered walking tours, poetry readings, and plays based on the lives of the people buried there. Their online calendar has not been updated, so I don’t know if they have anything upcoming.
The cemetery’s website
A downloadable map of Forest Hills
The Forest Hills Educational Trust blog
Forest Hills history and landscape
ETA: Here’s a great new post about the statues and landscape at Forest Hills.
Other posts on Cemetery Travel about Forest Hills:
Forest Hills Cemetery’s grand entrance
A guidebook to Forest Hills