Cemeteries are the perfect spot to track our planet’s demise

In a changing climate, cemeteries make great laboratories.

Paul Kwiatkowski’s office window offers an unusual view. Where other panoramas provide glimpses of busy city streets or slumbering office parks, Kwiatkowski’s Cambridge, Massachusetts workspace is surrounded by 174 acres of urban greenspace. There are trees of near-infinite variety, structures dating back to 1831, and about 100,000 graves.

Kwiatkowski is the wildlife conservation and sustainability manager for Mount Auburn Cemetery. Situated just west of Boston, the historic graveyard and arboretum neighbors Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital. Permanent residents include the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, geodesic dome inventor Buckminster Fuller, and legendary botanist Asa Gray. And newly deceased members join the ranks each day.

Like many burial grounds, Mount Auburn is also home to innumerable plants and animals, which skim the surface of its ponds, flutter in its treetops, and amble along its winding trails. But in recent years, Kwiatkowski has positioned the cemetery as an important and in-demand laboratory, one that will help researchers monitor the advance of climate change on Massachusetts and the world.

Mount Auburn Cemetery Cambridge Massachusetts citizen science
Citizen scientists record data on a lakeside tree in Mount Auburn Cemetery. Courtesy Mount Auburn Cemetery

In the 19th century, cemeteries weren’t just eternal resting places. They were also spaces of leisure popular among the living. Long before Central Park in New York was founded, or the Emerald Necklace in Boston complete, “rural cemeteries” like Green-Wood in Brooklyn or “garden cemeteries” such as Mount Auburn in Cambridge provided urbanites with much-needed opportunities for recreation. Archival photographs show just how much fun the cemetery could be: Americans in their best corsets, picnicking atop graves.

Today, we’re more likely to cross our hearts while passing a cemetery on the street than step into its gated confines for a sit-down meal. But the value of this greenspace has only grown as the communities around them have densified and urbanized—leaving cemeteries as unique nature preserves. In the case of Mount Auburn, people have consciously planted diverse trees, shrubs, and flowers from all over the world and cared for them tenderly over decades or even centuries. In other cases, though, plants that might otherwise be replaced by foreign varietals can thrive under a cemetery’s more passive management style, like the prairie cemeteries of Illinois, or even the woodsy outerboroughs of New York City.

“I look at things in different layers,” Kwiatkowski tells me over the phone from his office. “One layer is, I’ll look out and I’ll see this amazing arboretum with more than 5,000 trees from around the world, and I’ll also see this historic landscape—these amazing monuments, fences, and curbing that is so ornamental.” But beneath and between the man-made terrain, a non-human world hums. “When I look deeper,” Kwiatkowski says, he sees an ecological network in crisis.

Drought is more common and severe in recent years. “A lot of the problems that come from drought aren’t what you immediately see,” Kwiatkowski says. “The stress from drought weakens a plant so that a cold snap in winter can do way more damage. They’re much more susceptible to desiccation. They’re much more susceptible to pests.” And that’s not the half of it. When rain does fall, it often floods the cemetery’s ponds and vernal pools. Plants bloom at different times, drawing insects out sooner or later than in the past, potentially threatening the food supply for migratory birds flying north each spring. And summer extends farther into the ever-shrinking fall.

To cope, Mount Auburn has turned a pond into a grand experiment in flood water retention, digging deeper trenches to accommodate regular torrents. It’s reintroduced native species, including the American toad, great tree frog, the spring peeper, and the Eastern red backed salamander. And a climate action plan will guide further efforts to make plants more resilient to weather extremes. “You often hear in the horticultural field, put the right plant in the right place,” Kwiatkowski says. “That is more important than ever now.” But perhaps the cemetry’s most significant effort is its citizen science program in phenology.

Mount Auburn Cemetery Cambridge Massachusetts flowers bloom
The date when Mount Auburn Cemetery’s lilies bloom could be changing. Courtesy Mount Auburn Cemetery

Phenology is the practice of observing and recording the shifts in “nature’s calendar,” according to the USA National Phenology Network. (It has nothing to do with phrenology, the pseudoscience whose practitioners believed bumps and depressions on the human skull spoke to an individual’s character.) People have long practiced phenology for poetic or spiritual purposes, or sometimes just by accident. Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden; or, Life in the Woods, kept meticulous notes about the New England seasons for his work, while Billy Barr has kept a detailed nature journal of the Rocky Mountains for more than 40 years because he “got bored one winter.”.

It’s become an increasingly feverish practice in the United States, as people begin to notice climatic shifts on their doorstep. “Start keeping journals that record when plants flower in spring, when that fox comes to your yard, and when the maple drops its leaves,” Rebecca Onion advised in an essay on phenology for Slate this summer. “In so doing, you can anchor yourself in place and be a witness to the way nature is actually responding to change, instead of dwelling on the disasters that might come.”

At Mount Auburn, a team of interdisciplinary scientists now train volunteers in phenological data collection. In the spring, they look for things like bursting buds, insect onset, and the effect of shifting timescales on migratory birds. Later in the year, they monitor the duration of autumn. To ensure accuracy, the specific trees under observation are marked throughout the cemetery; this dogwood, that gingko. And all of this data is shared with the national network. “What we know is that plants are now flowering about two weeks earlier than they did in Thoreau’s time, and trees are also leafing out about two weeks earlier,” Boston University biology professor Richard Primack told local radio station WBUR. “And we know that birds are arriving a couple of days earlier than in Thoreau’s time.” What we learn next will come from the logs Mount Auburn’s team is making now.

Countless other cemeteries have engaged in similar climatic research. In Lowell, Massachusetts, researchers used historical photos of the local cemetery to compare changes in plant behaviors over more than a century. In Ohio, scientists at Cincinnati’s Spring Grove Cemetery have been charting the “floral sequence of bloom” on site, from witchhazel’s wintertime eruption in late February through the slumbering chastetree’s transformation in late August. And in Brooklyn, volunteers at Green-Wood are analyzing the impact of light and pollution on plants common to the cemetery and its surrounding city streets.

While phenology can be done anywhere, it’s clear burial grounds are uniquely suited to the task at hand. Phenology requires diligence, commitment season after season, and a recognition that the value of the work you do today will not be seen for years to come. But, Kwiatkowski says, a cemetery’s changing tree canopy and countless headstones are always great for “putting things into perspective.”