Lowell Cemetery Also Serves as a Public Park and a Sanctuary From Stressful City Life.
“Adelaide” was the nom de plume of a young mill girl who spent her days surrounded by machinery. The constant hum was oppressive, especially for those who had come from the farms of New England. The mill girls were not the only ones missing the calm respite of nature; Lowell had risen from the farmlands of East Chelmsford in the 1820s, and by 1841 was just the second city in the commonwealth with a population over 20,000. The open farming fields of the early city were quickly swallowed by a rapidly growing mecca of applied art and science.
Another concern grew out of the rapidly changing landscape. Old graveyards, some dating to the 1600s, were scattered about the city and were in various states of neglect. The Rev. Amos Blanchard of the Kirk Street Congregational Church called the older burial grounds of Lowell “abodes of desolation.” He expressed his concern at the sight of old gravestones covered in handbills for businesses and “fashionable amusements and follies.”
The landscape design of early American graveyards used by the original settlers of the Merrimack Valley was born of practicality. Usually located near the center of the community, the use of imagery on gravestones was to warn the living of their mortality. By the mid 1800s, however, municipalities were looking for space away from crowded urban centers to bury their dead. The blossoming romantic notions of art, nature and death begged for more individualized memorials.
Thomas Bender, author of “The ‘Rural’ Cemetery Movement: Urban Travail and the Appeal of Nature” (New England Quarterly, 1974) states that the rural cemetery movement was the result of a desire to balance man’s need for a common natural landscape with the progressing nation of cities and machines. Following the example of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, which opened in 1831 to great success, a group of prominent men of Lowell, with well-known names such as Aiken, Lawrence, Whipple and Livingston, voiced a desire to establish their own version of a cemetery utopia. They established the nonsectarian, nonprofit Lowell Cemetery Corporation in May 1841.
On a showery day that June, thousands of Lowellians gathered for the dedication of Lowell Cemetery. The Washington Brass Band played the “Cemetery Quick Step” while Blanchard prepared to give his address, in which he praised the “hill and dale…in delightful proportion” and touched upon the rejuvenating effects this space would have on the inhabitants of Lowell, whose lives were filled with “visual monotony and chaos.”
The grounds were designed by civil engineer George Worcester, who took the curving pathways and landscaping of Mount Auburn Cemetery and tailored them to the hilly area overlooking the Concord River. Out of sight from the textile mills, Lowell Cemetery served as a sanctuary from stressful city life, a place where one could peacefully repose in nature.
In contrast to smaller cemeteries with their ordered rows of gray slate and marble headstones, Lowell Cemetery was a mix of elegantly sculpted memorials and architectural delights. In its early days, the site became so popular for recreation that rules were quickly made. One such regulation prohibited riding horses in the cemetery on Sundays, with an exception for plot owners.
Lowell’s elite quickly began snapping up plots. Five-hundred were sold in January 1842 for $10 each by random drawing. For an extra $5, one could choose whichever plot they wanted, leading to the mix of old and new monuments seen today.
Though some people cringe at the idea of associating a site of mourning with a public park, many inhabitants of Lowell still visit Lowell Cemetery to enjoy passive recreation. Ongoing cemetery tours, established by the now deceased Catherine Goodwin in 1981, have been led for the past few years by Richard Howe Jr., register of deeds for the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds.
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we recommend you visit LowellCemetery.com for updates and current guidelines on visiting the grounds.