Circa 1850 a piece of land became available between the cities of Cambridge and Watertown, Massachusetts.
The entire culture of England and The United States was preoccupied with thoughts of death, and had been for much of the past hundred years. One of the Giant bestsellers of the era, going through hundreds of printings and re-printings was a book of several hundred pages length most people today have never heard of. It was called Night Thoughts, by Edward Young, and it was a poem. But "Elegy in A Country Churchyard" touches on some of the same concerns in a more highly condensed and less morbid fashion. William Cullen Bryant is an American contributor to the same literature.
Given the nature of the cultural climate, a quarrel broke out between partisans in either city for how to use the land. One group wanted to turn the area into a park;
the other group wanted to turn the area into a graveyard.
In the end, a compromise was reached, and Mount Auburn Cemetery was designed and landscaped. Even now, 150 years later, it's a place of haunting, extraordinary beauty in a clearly Victorian style. The Belle of Amherst, very much a creature of her time, would likely have images such as those in Mount Auburn Cemetery in her head, the
round bellied horses, the well appointed carriage, and the rows of crypts set into the edge of a well proportioned oval mound, the edges of the cornices just visible from the evenly trimmed grass lawn that covered the top.
Boston has buried Longfellow here. Mary Baker Eddy is in her own tomb. Boston being a town of apocryphal stories, it delights in confiding that Ms Eddy's tomb is connected by telegraph to the offices of the editor of The Christian Science Monitor. Some say telephone, and that he is to be the first to know the good news when she wakens. The story is of course untrue. The Cemetery is worth a visit, though, if you're in the area and you know something about the history.
And in many ways it's a living reminder, such as is today more and more difficult to come by, of the working consciousness of a period in American literary life. It's a peek into the collective unconscious of the American psyche of the time. It reminds you that even the notion of death changes over a reasonably short period of time from one thing to another. That death to Emily Dickinson may have been a bit of a different thing than it was to Wilfred Owen, even fifty years later, when machine guns and mustard gas were making death an almost industrial process.
It seems more and more difficult to separate out the actual fact of death itself from the thoughts and feelings we seem to have built up around it. I say this because I notice I've been responding to a thread about The Right to Die, and Death and Emily seem to be such a perfect pairing. Ham and eggs, strawberries and cream, Death and Emily.