The 9th Cambridge Open Archives

June 25, 2017

The 9th Annual Cambridge Open Archives: “Living and Dying in Cambridge”

A Rare Opportunity to View Mount Auburn’s Archival Materials

Can you imagine having the chance to examine an amazing selection of primary documents, ephemera, and photographs while discussing the history of Mount Auburn Cemetery? Well, this dream came true for the lucky individuals who attended this year’s 9th Annual Cambridge Open Archives.

Two groups of twenty curious visitors each joined us on the afternoon of June 19th for the rare opportunity to view archival materials from Mount Auburn Cemetery’s Historical Collections. This year’s theme, Living and Dying in Cambridge, was a particularly good fit for the Cemetery!

Visitors were treated to a lively exhibit of original materials including oversized ledgers dating back to the 1830s with hand-written lists of names and interment information; delicate 19th-century ink drawings of lots, monuments, and iron fences by Cemetery staff; and correspondence with letterhead designs of local monument dealers, carriage makers, and undertakers. Generated by the Cemetery administrators, superintendents, and groundskeepers, these records reflect the detailed record-keeping and care of family lots that was provided by Mount Auburn through the years.

Also on display were souvenir objects such a china pin tray and teacup printed with the “Gateway to Mount Auburn” and rendering of the Egyptian Revival Gateway. Tourist ephemera included cabinet cards and stereo view photographs with evocative images of visitors in top hats and hoop skirts viewing the Sphinx or gathering in front of Bigelow Chapel on Decoration Day (known today as Memorial Day). A range of 19th-century guidebooks revealed sentimental verse, foldout maps of the Cemetery, and recommended walking routes. It’s often a surprise that admittance tickets were once issued to lot proprietors as an attempt to control the crowds of visitors. These objects illustrate the importance and popularity of Mount Auburn as a pleasure ground that was created not only to bury the dead and console the bereaved, but also to inspire the living in an exceptionally beautiful designed landscape.

Perhaps the favorite object on display was the felted cloche-shaped helmet with a grosgrain ribbon emblazed with “Mount Auburn Cemetery.” It once belonged to the Cemetery gatekeeper and stereo view images show him wearing the helmet, standing under Egyptian Revival Gateway greeting visitors as they pass through from their busy urban lives into the tranquil greenspace of Mount Auburn.

I can’t underscore how fortunate we are to have these records and objects. Although all the materials on display in the Open Archives have been digitized, there’s nothing like the tactile charge of seeing the real thing, whether it’s the smudged ink of a handwritten letter or the scribbled marginalia in an old ledger. Please support our efforts as we continue to collect and preserve Mount Auburn’s records as we have since the Cemetery’s founding, and join us at our next Open Archives program to learn more about Mount Auburn’s fascinating story as the first rural cemetery in the nation.


  1. John Whiting says:

    We would love to be able to see these items. Please keep us informed of dates that the opportunity will be available.

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