IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE Greater Boston without its expansive cemeteries that serve as both resting places and public spaces – Mount Auburn, Forest Hills, Mount Hope. These garden cemeteries replaced the earlier practices where Americans were laid to rest in isolated plots or in crowded town and city graveyards. Rural, landscaped cemeteries were created in the early-to-mid 1800s, with Mount Auburn being the first reimagined cemetery. The concept was simple – build a place of commemoration in a setting of breathtaking beauty.
Today, many families are seeking new burial traditions that reflect contemporary values. Unfortunately, our state and local regulations are at risk of falling behind the times.
As just the 14th president of Mount Auburn Cemetery in its 191-year history, I know the value of tradition and taking the long view. Mount Auburn was established in 1831, a forested landscape nestled between Cambridge and Watertown. The founders envisioned the cemetery as the place where all communities of Boston — regardless of religion or race — would be remembered and celebrated for all of time in a setting of exceptional beauty.
Today, more than 100,000 individuals are buried and commemorated in Mount Auburn’s active cemetery with more added daily – leading figures from the Civil War era to the present day, including writers, educators, reformers, artists, scientists, and inventors still influential across Greater Boston, New England, America, and the world. Through its monuments and its grounds, Mount Auburn preserves and curates nearly two centuries of changing ideas about death, commemoration, and landscape design while thoughtfully adding new layers that reflect contemporary attitudes.
One modern challenge that Mount Auburn is confronting is the climate crisis. We’ve already reduced our carbon footprint by 20 percent, and our board has adopted a plan to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Mount Auburn aims to inspire other burial sites, organizations, and individuals to make a similar commitment.
We’re taking a closer look at burial alternatives that are also closer to carbon neutral. Traditional disposition methods – how the body will be prepared for its final resting – have modest but notable environmental impacts. Cremation, fueled by natural gas relies on a fuel source that is not sustainable. For body burials, most cemeteries require concrete liners or burial vaults, which prevent graves from collapsing under the weight of heavy equipment like backhoes or lawn mowers. Raw materials and energy to manufacture and ship these liners have significant carbon footprints.
There are two new disposition methods that are growing in popularity because they substantially reduce environmental harm. Hydrolysis uses heat, pressure, water, and base chemical agents to reduce human remains to bone fragments and essential elements. Natural organic reduction accelerates the conversion of remains to soil. As with other methods, both are conducted by professionals in controlled facilities.
As these new methods grow in global popularity, Massachusetts regulations need to keep up. Right now, our laws only cover traditional burial, cremation, or burial at sea. We believe it’s time for a conversation about how to update our laws to accommodate these new, “greener” methods.
Take a walk around Mount Auburn 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. With the climate crisis weighing on the minds of many, it’s Mount Auburn’s hope that our communities would look to options to leave lighter footprints as part of their legacy. We should update our laws to accommodate that benevolence.
Matthew Stephens is president and CEO of Mount Auburn Cemetery.