Blogs by Hilary Hopkins

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Volunteering at the Cemetery

August 07, 2013 / Volunteering at the Cemetery

For many years I have been a volunteer at Mount Auburn Cemetery.  Mount Auburn was founded in 1831 as a collaboration between the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, which wanted a place out in the countryside for experimental gardens and an arboretum, and a local doctor who was concerned about the spreading of noxious diseases from overcrowded church graveyards.  Between them they purchased about 70 acres of the glacially-formed landscape on the margins of Cambridge and Watertown, Massachusetts, and established the country’s first “garden cemetery”.   (The word “cemetery” means “sleeping place”.) 

Enhanced by newly-planted trees and flowers, the cemetery quickly attracted many visitors.  People flocked to it, both to lay their loved ones to rest in a beautiful place, and simply to come in their carriages for an afternoon’s drive amid serene and quiet surroundings.

Nowadays, Mount Auburn embraces 175 acres spread over seven hills and three lakes, and around 5,500 trees of perhaps 700 species—as well as countless shrubs, flowers and ferns—grace its gentle landscape.  The cemetery hosts lots of wildlife, too: coyotes, foxes, woodchucks, rabbits, opossums, raccoons, owls, hawks, turtles, chipmunks, frogs, salamanders, an entire family of turkeys—I have seen all of these and others in my volunteer hours.   It is also designated an “Important Birding Area” of the East Coast and is especially loved by birders during the warbler migration times in spring and fall.

Nearly 100,000 persons are “resident” here, and they are memorialized by perhaps 45,000 monuments, large and small, ornate and plain.  It’s these monuments that are the focus of my volunteer work.

In Victorian days, and earlier, most of the monuments were made of marble, white and pure and perfect for incising inscriptions.  Sadly, over the years, our New England weather, and the increase of acidic rain, have compromised the original gleaming marble surfaces.  Worse, many of the inscriptions, so carefully composed by family and friends, have deteriorated badly, even unto illegibility.

My job is to try to decipher, and record, these fading testaments of grief, love, respect, and history.

Armed with cemetery records which give names, dates of burial and ages at death, as well as a sturdy folding chair and a strong flashlight, I spend many hours with the oldest monuments. 

Is that letter an E or a P?  an F perhaps?  Does that say 1868 or 1863?  What is that word in the middle of the family’s tribute?  Perhaps I can use my iPhone to Google as much as I can read, and maybe it is part of a well-known verse of hymn or poetry, or perhaps from the Bible.  Nope, nothing turns up that way.

If I could just see that word more clearly—and I’m not allowed to make rubbings or otherwise touch the stone—I shine my flashlight at a raking angle, from the side, and the word pops into sight in shadowed relief: “darling”.  Oh!  It says, “Our darling daughter.”  Yes, I see now.  “Aged 12 y’rs. 3 mo’s. & 7 d’ys.”  How heartbroken her family.  Was it illness?  Accident?

Here’s another.  The family’s grief is inscribed on the monument thus:  “For Earth too good, perhaps, and loved too much.  Died Feb. 12 1887 Aged 5 years 7 mos. 8 dys.”

It’s a meditative, quiet work.  I sit in my folding chair, close to the monument, trying to clear my mind enough so that I have no preconceptions about the words and numbers I am trying to perceive.  Cloudy days are best, for direct sunlight on the words keeps away the shadows that aid my perception.  Usually I can only work about two hours before feeling mentally drained of concentration.  

Sometimes shrubbery enfolds the back of a monument, and I have to determine by touch whether there is anything inscribed back there.  If there is, I push my way gently through the branches, clutching my flashlight, clipboard and pencil and painstakingly record what I find; sometimes I end up draped in spider webbing.  Now and then there’s something way down at ground level, and I have to lie on my belly to peer at it.  Fortunately the guys who maintain the grounds know me and don’t call Security when they spot this white-haired woman belly-down in the grass.

I am grateful for the chance to do this work.  I feel that I am once again giving a voice to those, now gone themselves, who mourned their beloved people and who chose carefully what words to write about them.  Now these words—at least most of them, the ones I can read—are safely stored both digitally and on the forms I complete and sign.  I like to think that, a hundred years from now, someone looking through the files will see my name, and think, oh, that’s that person who did all this work.  I wonder who she was?


  • Jeremy 08:14pm, 08/17/2013

    What a treasure your writings are, Hilary! When I’m having a bad day, I just think of people like you and it reminds me that the world can be a very wonderful place.

  • Maya 02:13pm, 08/19/2013

    That’s a great thing to do; I dearly love cemeteries. Reading the memorials, my imagination goes to these long ago people and I make up stories about what might have happened, especially if there are other gravestones nearby with the same last name. Fascinating and a little sad and peaceful all at once.


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