Famous graves, historic gardens: 165 years at Forest Hills Cemetery

July 18, 2014
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Right in the heart of the Forest Hills section of Jamaica Plain, nestled between Franklin Park and the Arnold Arboretum, one of the nation’s first garden cemeteries can be found: Forest Hills Cemetery.

The 195 Forest Hills St. landmark was established in 1848 as a municipal cemetery for the City of Roxbury, then a separate entity from the City of Boston. Roxbury Mayor Henry Dearborn carved out the cemetery from farmland, designed the original, Egyptian-style wooden entrance gate, and laid out the plans.

The inspiration for a rural, garden cemetery was largely based on Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, also designed by Dearborn, who was then the first president of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.

Forest Hills is also the site of the first crematory in New England and predates Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace park system by several decades.

The original 71 acres came from the farms of Joel Seaverns and John Parkinson. But the cemetery has since expanded to approximately 250 acres, bound by Walk Hill, Canterbury and Morton streets. It is the burial site of over 100,000 people.

Buried at Forest Hills are statesmen, politicians, soldiers, industrialists, playwrights, activists, poets, firemen, spiritualists, athletes and abolitionists—including E.E. Cummings, Susan Dimock, William Heath, Joseph Warren, John A. Winslow, William Lloyd Garrison, Lucy Stone, Emily Greene Balch, Eugene O’Neill and Jacob Wirth.

Founded during a period of transition in funerary art, Forest Hills has a wide and varied collection of sculpture. One of the most famous is “Boy in the Boat.”

In 1886, while in a small boat near the shore of a pond, 5-year-old Louis Mieusset noticed his pet rabbit running along the bank. He reached out for the pet, but lost his balance, fell in the water and drowned. His mother, Louise Hellium Mieusset chose his last moment to be depicted over his grave. It is covered by a glass enclosure, which protects the sculpture from the elements.

The cemetery received a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004. The mausoleums, obelisks and memorial statues to soldiers, generals and other historical notables, as well as the over 40 Celtic crosses, are specifically mentioned as contributing factors in the cemetery’s application.

Modern sculpture is also part of Forest Hills’ heritage. Kahlil Gibran, Fern Cunningham, Ataru Kozura and John Housser—who worked on Mt. Rushmore along with his father Ivan—all have works in the cemetery. Gibran was also eventually buried there.

Forsyth Chapel, built in 1884 and formerly used as a venue for concerts and poetry readings, was the gift of James Bennett Forsyth, a wealthy rubber manufacturer. The organ is by Hook and Hastings, and given by Forsyth as a memorial to his sister Margaret Forsyth. It was built in 1885 and has 29 registers.

Lake Hibiscus was originally a small pond fed by a spring. It was enlarged in the 1850s to create the four-acre lake with small islands that it is today. Other lakes have been filled in in the cemetery’s 166 years.

During the latter part of the 19th century, Forest Hills developed a tradition of ornamental plantings, including palm trees, that is still evident.

The cemetery got an extra boon starting in 1991, with the foundation of the Forest Hills Educational Trust (FHET). The nonprofit previously functioned like a “friends” group of the cemetery, fundraising and organizing programming that the cemetery had to approve.

But since its last executive eirector, Cecily Miller, left in 2010, its once-famous programming has dwindled to almost nothing. Cemetery leadership announced just last month that the Lantern Festival, modeled on Japanese Buddhist memorial ceremonies and celebrated for the last 15 years, would be cancelled this year, with no guarantee of a possible return.

FHET’s last employee, Jonathan Clark, who left earlier this year to pursue a graduate degree in North Carolina, told the Gazette that FHET’s goal was “trying to get people to come and appreciate the many wonders Forest Hills Cemetery offers and create events that maintain the cemetery’s sensibility of being inviting and bringing people together in a beautiful space.”

But under current cemetery CEO George Milley, those programs were terminated as not profitable enough, Clark said,

“The cemetery, being business-minded, always hoped we would turn our efforts into profit,” he said. “We weren’t able to do that for them in a demonstrative way. We were using their resources on things that weren’t making money back for them,” he said.

Milley and his administration came under fire in 2012 for felling hemlock trees. He told the Gazette that the removals were to remove insect-infested trees and to produce space for future plots.

Milley did not return a Gazette phone call for this article.

The cemetery’s website is foresthillscemetery.com.

Sources for this article include the Jamaica Plain Historical Society, the cemetery’s application to the National Register of Historic Places, “Forest Hills Cemetery” by Anthony Mitchell Sammarco, “Garden of Memories” by Susan Wilson, and Gazette Archives.

The sculpture “Death and the Sculptor” by Daniel Chester French is one of many works of art in the cemetery. (Gazette Photo by Rebeca Oliveira)

The sculpture “Death and the Sculptor” by Daniel Chester French is one of many works of art in the cemetery. (Gazette Photo by Rebeca Oliveira)

The stone gate at the entrance to Forest Hills Cemetery. (Gazette Photo by Rebeca Oliveira)

The stone gate at the entrance to Forest Hills Cemetery. (Gazette Photo by Rebeca Oliveira)