Forest Hills Cemetery’s original gateway had been Egyptian, styled after the ancient portico at Garsey, on the Upper Nile.
The cemetery had been founded as nondenominational at the start. Despite that, the cemetery’s 19th-century clientele rejected Egyptian architecture as too pagan. They wanted something solid that spoke of good Christian values. What they got was a grand tripartite Gothic archway, more beautiful to my eyes than the Old Granary Burying Ground’s strange little Egyptian gate. Forest Hills’ entryway is Gothic in a completely over-the-top fashion, lots of flowery granite capitals above the crumbling sandstone blocks.
It promises, “He that keepeth thee will not slumber.” A six-pointed star adorned the top of the gateway, but Garden of Memories suggests that it seemed not to be a Star of David, but was rather a Solomon’s seal, signifying the union of soul and body. That seemed an odd sentiment for a graveyard, since they tend philosophically to lean toward the separation of what’s eternal from what’s mortal.
Forest Hills Cemetery
95 Forest Hills Avenue Boston, Massachusetts 02130
Telephone: (617) 524-0128
email@example.com Established: 1848 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.
Founded in 1848, Boston’s Forest Hills is one of the most beautiful cemeteries I’ve ever visited. I owe that visit to stumbling across this dense little book in a travel store in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The book may be difficult to find elsewhere, but it’s very worth tracking down.
Garden of Memories opens with a historical overview that places Forest Hills in perspective. From then on, it leads you through six walking tours that range in topic from art to history to literature to world events. Forest Hills is 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. It’s also home to some of the most amazing mortuary sculpture I’ve yet seen, including not only David Chester French’s Death and the Sculptor and his Angel of Peace, but also Thomas Ridgeway Gould’s Ascending Spirit, and other poignant portrait sculpture whose creators are less well-known.
The book includes a torrent of biographical sketches and a good number of truly striking photographs. If you can’t get to Boston, this might be the next best thing.
This useful guide to touring the colonial burying grounds of downtown Boston explains the symbology of the gravestones and the histories of the graveyards. It contains capsule biographies of important personages, illustrated by some small black-and-white photographs, and includes a pull-out map with all the remaining gravestones numbered.
It also holds over a hundred pages of gravestone inventories — and lists the missing gravestones — from the three downtown graveyards. It’s all important information, but I would have preferred to have it split into two volumes so that the first half of the book could have been expanded. As a tourist, I’m much more interested in what’s there to be seen.
I also wish the photographs could have been larger. The gravestone carvings are so beautiful in Boston that they would have been better served by being better recorded, even if large glossy photos would have made the guidebook heavier to carry around.
Until a better guidebook comes along, this is the one to get if you’re planning to visit Boston’s King’s Chapel, Granary, or Central Burying Gounds. It’s an excellent introduction.
King’s Chapel Burying Ground
58 Tremont Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02108
Telephone: (617) 523-1749 Established: Approximately 1630. Burials ceased around 1796. Number of Interments: Maybe as many of 1500 Size: Less than half an acre Open: Daily 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. free of charge.
King’s Chapel Burying Ground, the first graveyard in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, seems to have been established as early as 1630, mere months after the foundation of the city. The historical plaque says that the land probably belonged originally to Isaac Johnson. His will directed that he be buried on his own land — and here he lies.
The initial colonists of Boston were such Puritans that they didn’t allow images engraved on their tombstones. Their markers that still exist are thick heavy stones recording only names and dates. William Paddy’s stone, dated 1658, is one of the oldest surviving grave markers in New England.
In 1688, the British governor seized land from the older part of the graveyard to build King’s Chapel. The burying ground takes its name from that church, though nothing else. The graveyard continued to be secular, unaffiliated with the adjacent church. That meant that no distinctions were made in the graveyard in terms of sect, or even of race. When people died, they needed to be planted. Until the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground opened in 1656, everyone in Boston ended up in King’s Chapel Burying Ground.
Charles Bahne’s Complete Guide to Boston’s Freedom Trail points out that the Puritans must have spun in their graves when the chapel was built. Aside from the simple desecration, the Anglican Church had been the reason they’d fled to the New World in the first place.
Although the original Puritans forbade anything but text on their grave markers, later preachers differentiated between ornamentation inside churches and on gravestones. This led to the familiar skull and crossbones that appear on so many of New England’s surviving headstones.
The King’s Chapel Burying Ground contains some spectacular death’s-heads. One of the stones from 1690 has a leering skull shaped like a Dia de los Muertos sweet. The bony forehead has raised eyebrows, but his nose is merely a pair of upended angles, one inside the other. His clenched teeth go straight across like pickets in a fence. The wings that stretch out behind him hold row upon row of feathers. Where we see a macabre reminder that our ancestors were all too familiar with the skull beneath the skin, they saw a memento mori — a nudge, as if they needed it, that no one knew the hour of his inescapable demise and everyone should be prepared to meet their Maker at any moment.
Of all the headstones in this graveyard, my favorites stand along the front walkway, watching Boston pass by outside their iron gate. These depict the struggle to snuff out life’s candle; Father Time, a robed patriarch with a knee-length beard, faces off against a skeletal Death.
Primary among the famous people buried in King’s Chapel Burying Ground is the first governor of the Massachusetts colony, John Winthrop. After his election as governor, Winthrop led seven hundred religious “Separatists” (what we’d call Puritans) to leave England and settle on a hilly peninsula they named after Boston, England. Winthrop proclaimed that this new Boston would be “a shining city on a hill,” a beacon to all others who wanted to lead an exemplary religious life. By the time of his death, Boston had swelled into a city of fifteen thousand people.
Since Winthrop died in 1649, I knew that the brick and granite table monument covering his grave must be a later addition. The style was wrong for a Puritan grave marker. The book Preachers, Patriots, and Plain Folks confirmed my suspicion, reporting that the new monument had been erected in 1920.
In the center of the graveyard stands a marker for William Dawes, the other man who rode to Lexington to announce the “British are coming!” He had the misfortune of being neglected by 19th-century poets, so Paul Revere’s is the name we connect with the Midnight Ride. Revere lies down the street at the Granary Burying Ground, under a monument much grander that Dawes’s. Dawes himself was moved out of the graveyard to Forest Hill Cemetery, but a small American flag still draw tourists to his original grave.
Not far from the church wall stands the headstone of Elizabeth Pain. Some books, including The Smithsonian Guide to Historic America, imply she inspired Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter. Pain’s marker gives no indication that she was seduced and impregnated by a churchman.
In the 1740s, gravediggers at King’s Chapel Burying Ground lamented that they were burying the dead four deep. By 1795, when the graveyard had surpassed full and headed toward critical mass, ground burials finally halted. The outer boundary of the cemetery, ringed with subterranean family tombs, continued to accept new residents until the 1970s.
The Freedom Trail feature on King’s Chapel Burying Ground
A Walk Into History offers public walking tours of Boston’s Freedom Trail, including the King’s Chapel Burying Ground. Led by costumed guides, the 90-minute tour costs $13 for adults, $11 for seniors and students, and $7 for children. Tickets available at http://www.thefreedomtrail.org or at 148 Tremont St., Boston Common, Boston, MA 02111.
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