Don’t Be Scared to Visit Cemeteries
October 31, 2012

No doubt tonight, as you take your costumed kids out trick-or-treating, some houses will be decked out with fake tombstones, perhaps with plastic hands reaching out from mock graves. That’s all well and good for Halloween, but I think real cemeteries get a bad rap.

Two of the most beautifully landscaped places to explore in the Boston area—Forest Hills Cemetery and Mount Auburn Cemetery—were designed not only final resting places, but also as somewhere to enjoy art, landscape design, architecture, and nature. Certainly they invite peace and quiet, contemplation, and even meditation, but they were meant to be visited by the public year-round. And not just by adults. You’ll have to trust me on this, but once you take your kids, you’ll make plans to go back.

Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain was founded in 1848 and features Victorian landscape design with shady paths, a lake, a fountain, a waterfall, and scenic vistas on 275 acres. Works by important sculptors are arrayed throughout the cemetery, and you can pick up a fantastic visitors guide and map at the main entrance. When the cemetery opened, it was the place the public went for art openings—the Museum of Fine Arts wasn’t founded until 1870.

The Forest Hills Educational Trust offers walking tours, exhibitions, special events, concerts, and poetry readings throughout the year. The Contemporary Art Sculpture Path features year-long exhibits. The artworks are listed in the guide and can be found throughout the cemetery.

As you stroll, ask your kids to look for all the memorials and monuments that feature animals, a popular motif during Victorian times. The most famous one is the 1854 Barnard Monument, which features a life-size sculpture of a dog. Speaking of dogs, you can bring yours; just keep it on a leash and pick up after it. Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge was founded in 1831 and was the first large-scale designed landscape cemetery open to the public in the United States. It is now a National Historic Landmark. The 175-acre property has ponds, meadows, woods, gardens, fountains, sculptures, monuments, and chapels. Both paved and grassy paths lead all around the grounds. It’s also considered a wildlife sanctuary for birds; the Mass Audubon Society designated it an Important Bird Area.

The cemetery has done a great job with educational materials. Start your visit at Story Chapel (to the right of the cemetery office), which is home to the visitor center. You can watch a video about the cemetery’s history and pick up maps (small fee) as well as special materials for kids. There is a letterbox challenge, a scavenger hunt, and a family guide to the Washington Tower, an observation tower you can climb for views of Boston. The Friends of Mount Auburn Cemetery offers guided walking tours and special events throughout the year. Upcoming events include a walking tour this Saturday, November 3, and a foliage walk on Sunday, November 4.

Have you taken your kids to Forest Hills or Mount Auburn cemeteries? Tell us about your visit.

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