Historic Forest Hills Cemetery
Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood is perhaps the city’s most beautiful and historic rural garden cemetery. Established in 1848, the cemetery’s 250 acres represent not just the final resting place for generations of notable Bostonians, but also a peaceful environment for anyone to wander and enjoy various examples of late 19th century art and architecture.
Founded and designed by Henry A.S. Dearborn, the then mayor of Roxbury, Forest Hills also reflects the popularity of emphasizing the horticultural landscape for that time. A generation before Frederick Law Olmstead began working on Boston’s “Emerald Necklace” system of public parks, Dearborn envisioned a space that would offer urban visitors the opportunity to connect with nature, experience beauty, and restore their spirit while visiting. Essentially, he envisioned a public park, only dotted with headstones.
Forest Hills feels like a park, right from the entrance.
Inside the gate, a welcome center and map greet visitors, and then it’s off to wander the grounds, which consist of gently sloping grassy hills, mature trees, and a pond – all criss-crossed by paved paths and lanes named from nature (Hemlock, Maple, Lilac, Tulip, Cowslip, etc.).
Among the numerous native and exotic trees are cherry trees, sugar and Japanese maples, umbrella pines, and weeping hemlocks. Most are stately, with canopied tops that offer plenty of shade while you stroll.
In the older sections of the cemetery, the stones look very different from what we see in today’s cemeteries. I noticed right away that pairs of “mother” and “father” stones were everywhere — sometimes with full names, sometimes without.
I spent a few minutes wondering about the back story on this particular grouping…
Other stones are simply names.
I also spotted a few stones with figures of dogs on top. This one, for Charlie, shows that Charlie’s pup must have been awfully special to him to have been included as part of his gravestone.
While some stones are simple, others are decidedly more elaborate. This monument to a ship captain contained intricate carvings of an anchor and sailing ship. Despite the nearly 150 years of weathering, the effect is still impressive.
Still others show an even higher level of art and dedication. This tribute from a mother to her daughter, who died at age 5, is a life-sized replica of the child sitting in a boat and holding a tennis racket. It has a protective glass covering to keep the marble safe from the weather’s erosion.
No matter the size, each tribute is personal and tells a story.
You could stroll Forest Hills Cemetery all day and not see everything, but the handy map at the entrance (for a suggested $1 donation) helps. In addition to the more traditional stones, there are many statues, monuments, and even more recent art additions to take in.
The cemetery allows cyclists, well-behaved dogs, and picnickers, so plan a visit and make an afternoon of it. In addition to the many historical reasons to stroll Forest Hills, the biggest draw is true to Dearborn’s original plan — a resting place that offers as much enjoyment for the living as it does peace for its more permanent inhabitants.