Forest Hills Cemetery: springtime six-feet under

by Beacon Staff • March 25, 2009

Last week Jack Frost finally took a nap and the outdoors became a temperate, bearable place to be once again. But Emerson students beware: the semester is not yet done and it will be many weeks before you can completely let loose and enjoy the weather. So for the student looking for a place to be outside while remaining aware of the semi-somberness of this not-quite summer season, the Forest Hills Cemetery is a great place to revel those morbid mid-semester moods.

Established in 1849, the enchanting Forest Hills Cemetery is the final resting place for hundreds of historical figures and still an active burial site. Open from dawn to dusk, the winding, scenic, paths lead explorers through the 275-acre park and to the grave sites of celebrated Americans such as abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, suffragist Lucy Stone, poet e. e. cummings, playwright Eugene O'Neil and many others. For a fun art project, bring some paper and charcoal along, to do rubbings of your favorite headstones. It's also entertaining to pay attention to some of the names out there, fiction writers; you could have just met your future protagonist.

Senior visual media arts major Kasey Hariman particularly enjoys cummings' grave for this neat quirk-near his headstone is a tree sculpture with books of cummings' poetry available to read and enjoy. "It's so cool. There are little ziplock bags with e.e. cummings' books in there. You can sit on a stump and read," said Hariman.

Hariman, a Jamaica Plain resident, said he loves the neighborhood.

"It's totally easy to get there, I'd say 30 minutes max from campus and while you're there you can stop by the Arnold Arboretum," Hariman said, "it makes for such a great day."

Beyond the cool deceased guys the park offers what their Web site refers to as an "open-air museum." With more than 99,000 people buried there, the graveyard is home to masses of gorgeous historical decor making it a nationally recognized collection of 19th century memorial art. Ornate brass and marble sculpture is scattered throughout the park reminding passersby of the idyllic American forebear: proud, defiant and pioneering.

Perhaps even more notable is the contemporary sculpture. Park curators have worked hard to make the cemetery both part of the past and present. The burial ground currently is home to more than 24 works of contemporary sculpture installed throughout the landscape.

"Nightshirts," a sculpture exhibit by Leslie Wilcox, brings out the ghostly charm of the cemetery. Painted, stainless steel screens are worn as nightgowns by a handful of spruce trees in the exhibit celebrating both the otherworldly and the humorous.

The cemetery is also famous for its annual Lantern Festival. The festival, held each summer, which honors the dead with lanterns in a Buddhist style, draws thousands of locals and tourists to Forest Hills to memorialize. Participants inscribe lanterns with a message to lost loved ones and send them across the lake at sunset. This festival seems to embody the spirit of the Forest Hills Cemetery itself: a place where people and things of the past are celebrated in new creative ways.

Definitely take the time to stop by and visit the main office and get a map-though it might not save you; even with a map the park is difficult to maneuver especially if you plan to visit a specific gravesite or exhibit. Visitors feeling particularly ambitious can buy a self-guided tour book to learn extra fun facts and ease the confusion of the disorganized topography.

The park hosts all kinds of activities including outdoor concerts and guided tours. Also, the Forest Hills Cemetery Chapel is often a venue for poetry readings with local writers.

"It's interesting-definitely worth going to," said Hariman. "It's sort of relaxing but not because you're always aware of all those dead people around."

Students sick of stretching their legs on the Common should hop on the orange line and enjoy a new, very much alive, local scene. The Forest Hills Cemetery is the perfect place to take a walk with your friends both dead and alive.