Lynn’s City of Angels

Pine Grove Cemetery

I never knew there were so many angels in Lynn. Sure, I see a few strolling by the water, but most of them are found in Pine Grove Cemetery, a lovely, well-kept, municipally-owned resting place dating back to the mid-nineteenth century.

Scanning the stones, monuments and mausoleums in its extensive grounds, a Lynner will recognize the names of city streets: Breed, Newhall, Estes, Chase, Buffum. Many dignitaries and businesspeople lie in this hallowed municipal ground, as well as passionate abolitionists and temperance advocates. One of the most important innovators has an eye-catching stone but no street named after him (however, he does have a bridge now) — Jan Ernst Matzeliger, a man of mixed race who invented the lasting machine that turned the city into a powerhouse of the shoe industry. Lydia Pinkham, Lynn’s most famous female entrepreneur (and ardent abolitionist), born in 1819, concocted a tonic to “cure entirely the worst form of Female Complaints.” Its 27% alcohol content proved a sovereign cure indeed (for some Complaints at least), and her pioneering marketing methods and patents brought her fame and fortune.

Yes: many prominent citizens repose in Pine Grove as well as many common ones.

“City of the dead” is a serviceable cliché almost impossible to resist; yet after traversing even part of the cemetery you can see that Pine Grove might also be described as a gated community with sections of grandeur for the notables and shady lawns for most of the rest, as well as military enclaves for those who fell in service.

The cemetery comprises approximately 250 acres, 82 of which are developed, and houses between 88,000 and 90,000 remains. Call it a city, call it a community, call it even a paradise — a landscaped, nineteenth century Yankee sort of paradise in its picturesque sectors, with street signs and avenues and rows upon rows of stones snaking intestinally up and down hills, as the earth breathes in and out.

Pine Grove was laid out by one of the greatest exponents of the rural cemetery movement of the mid-19th century. Visitors to the older parts of the cemetery will not be surprised to learn that they were designed by Henry A. S. Dearborn, the man who made Mount Auburn Cemetery one of the glories of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Trees and plantings harmonize man-made artifacts and nature quite well. While the memorials may be status symbols and not much to contemporary taste, they are a fascinating glimpse of the culture of their times, especially the Gilded Age. I discovered at least one symbol I had never seen before: it looks like a dollar sign with three vertical strokes. In fact, it’s a religious symbol made up of the first three letters of Jesus’s name in Greek. You will also find the odd swastika, a symbol that predates the Nazis by hundreds of years.

The preponderance of religious memorials, with their formidable crosses and dour inscriptions, tends to weigh me down, but there are a number of homier designs that are genuinely touching and not a few memorials for children that are downright heartbreaking. At Pine Grove you’ll find several fine Celtic crosses with intricate work. And, while not common, you’ll come across grand mausoleums, tombs for the worthiest. At first glance they look like ornate subway entrances in bronze and marble (at least to me).

Pine Grove has sections for its war dead, crowned with appropriate statuary: the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), whose Civil War dead inaugurated the military sections not long after the cemetery opened; the Spanish-American War vets, soldiers of both world wars and later “conflicts,” most with a representative in stone or bronze to mark the era. And there’s a dandy, time-worn statue of a fireman from 1918, hose at the ready. On the feminine side, a variety of angels, maidens, and wives decorously watch over and ennoble their loved ones. One wonders if this kind of sculpture was regarded as fine art or as a special kind of funerary art, stepsister to museum pieces. The technical skill of their execution seems to be comparable to familiar civic monuments — say, the Benjamin Franklin statue at the Old City Hall in Boston or Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s memorial to Robert Gould Shaw in the Boston Garden — though the creative spark may have flashed a little less brightly. But then, schlepping souls to heaven is hard work.

We also see much lettering of interest. Greek and Armenian script is inscribed on stones in their respective sections. The closing quotation marks of scriptural citations provide proof that highly-kerned punctuation preceded phototypesetting. I found relatively few photos embedded in the stones — I guess this was not a custom among people of Anglo-Saxon descent. There’s some nice relief carving (my favorite being of Harry Agganis but there are strong specimens of a more religious character), and what must be a new technique in gravestones — a photographic engraving (by laser?) of the deceased on a smooth, polished surface. We don’t need angels anymore! I cannot say that I find this in the best of taste and do not show an example here, though I do include a picture of a stone using the technology for artwork. Like decals that commemorate the dead on the rear windows of cars, I see these portraits as a reflection of our Facebook culture. Then again, it could just be the modern version of an embedded photograph and my traditionalist tendencies are clouding my judgment.

I am much indebted for information on Pine Grove to a comprehensive booklet prepared for a guided tour on September 28, 2014. It was published under the auspices of the Trails & Sails program of the Essex National Heritage Area and the Lynn Community Association and in collaboration with the Lynn Historical Commission and Pine Grove Cemetery Commission. 

More info on the cemetery can be found on the web:

Pine Grove’s Wikipedia page

Pine Grove on the City of Lynn’s website

Pine Grove has a Facebook page, of course. I did not detect any tweets from the cemetery.

And now, dearly beloved, the photos.