Reflections on a year at Mount Auburn Cemetery
I joined Mount Auburn Cemetery as its 14th president and chief executive around this time last year. The pandemic was a strange time for anyone starting a job, meeting co-workers with masks and knowing someone only by their eyes, but it was an especially difficult time to start at a cemetery; our staff dealt with a tough couple years as deaths ran significantly higher than normal, and I was proud of their dedication and perseverance. As I pass my anniversary at Mount Auburn, we’re now welcoming people for in-person events again, while looking ahead to how we can grow Mount Auburn’s role in the Cambridge community.
Mount Auburn Cemetery plays a unique, multifaceted role within Cambridge and across Greater Boston as a vibrant urban green space and public garden, interpreter of the human experience and active cemetery. We invite the public to connect with nature, art and the stories of those who have come before them. A National Historic Landmark, Mount Auburn Cemetery’s 175 acres are open to the public 365 days a year, welcoming more than 200,000 visitors annually.
From its inception, Mount Auburn has been a leader in reimagining what cemeteries can be. Founded in 1831 as America’s first “rural” cemetery, its reputation grew quickly as a choice for burial by Greater Boston’s leaders and as a place where the public was encouraged to enjoy natural beauty. More than 100,000 people are buried and commemorated at Mount Auburn – including writers, educators, reformers, artists, scientists and inventors still influential across Greater Boston, New England, America and the world. Further, we plan to continue to operate as an active cemetery for hundreds of years into the future.
Our founders designed Mount Auburn’s grounds for commemoration without restrictions on religion or race – they were thought leaders of their time. Mount Auburn is committed to inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility, and we strive constantly to engage more of our community.
We also take seriously our role in engaging with today’s challenges. Mount Auburn invests in preserving and enhancing urban green space and wildlife habitat, creating an urban oasis. We have on-site solar panels and a sustainable grounds maintenance plan, aiming for carbon-neutrality by 2050. And, as demand for environmentally friendly options grows, we’ve started a conversation across the death care community and with our elected officials about what expanding green burial options in Massachusetts might look like.
In December, we invite the Cambridge community to join us for “Solstice: Reflections on Winter Light.” “Solstice” will include an outdoor journey through large-scale light and sound artworks, and an indoor experience with live music and a memorable candle lighting. Guests are invited to walk through the light-filled landscape and explore the winter solstice atmosphere, and to reflect on moments of light or dark as the year ends and a new cycle begins. Tickets will be available to the public Nov. 2 at MountAuburn.org.
I consider myself lucky to lead such a cherished local institution, and I continue to be humbled every time I walk our beautiful landscape. Take a walk around and you’ll see burial markers of all shapes and sizes, from artistic monuments to simple stones. How we choose to be laid to rest represents a final statement of values. Over the next year, Mount Auburn will invite more of you to join our conversations about values – in life, and how they live on in death. I hope you’ll join us.
Matthew Stephens is president and chief executive of Mount Auburn Cemetery.