Historical Guide

Orientation for Visitors

Today's visitors are welcome to use the Cemetery in ways which respect its beauty and serenity. This overview orients visitors to parking, walkways, burial areas, buildings, geological and horticultural features. Clearly marked paths and roads continue the tradition of a garden-like landscape.

A combination of rural lawn and garden landscaping styles has resulted in burial areas ranging from austere, to serene, to decorative. The oldest sections of the Cemetery are to the left of the entrances. Here on sees a landscape design intended to enhance natural beauty, spirituality, and reflection on life, death, and moral values.

Cemeteries are rarely found on land characterized by hills, ledges, large rock formations, abundant trees and green growth. It was precisely these features that made possible the creation of Walnut Hills Cemetery in the new rural style of rural beauty and quiet charm. The plan of Ernest W. Bowditch, the designer, freed nature to dispel the gloom and melancholy of earlier burial grounds. The social and political concepts of democracy, the worth of human life, and recognition of the naturalness of death invigorated the rural landscape design.

Burial Areas

The oldest graves are set in a terrain of gently rolling hills, Roxbury Puddingstone, ledges, indigenous trees and nature's ground covers. There are no fences around graves in keeping with the plan to preserve and unobstructed natural flow of open space. Each area has its own ambiance depending upon the density of trees, the terrain and the dispersion of grave markers. They may be in formal rows, in seemingly random placement or even in hidden sites. There are special areas for veterans 1876-77 GAR Post 143 and Civil War Memorial for the unknown dead.

Grave Markers

In 1886, Walnut Hills Cemetery was the 1st to place limitations on the size and design of new monuments. Later, simple Quincy slate, granite or bronze tablets were permitted. No white marble, mausoleums and few sculptures were to be used. This occasioned considerable friction in town meeting, but resulted in a harmonious feeling within the Cemetery thus avoiding the threatening grandiosity of the Victorian Age.

Many of the headstones are engraved; others have floral designs in bas-relief. Most graves are in family groupings often with smaller stones for women with even smaller ones of miniature lambs for infants and children. There are obelisks reflecting the 19th century vogue for Egyptian and Neo-Classical cemetery fashion. Some plots are covered with flat grave length slabs of stone or decoratively embossed metal covers resting on the earth. Visitors who wander from the paths may find the hidden sculpture of a brooding woman or a large secluded family plot with a view. Unique to Walnut Hills are the Roxbury Puddingstone headstones. The irregular conglomerates of Roxbury Puddingstone were said to resemble a plum pudding of raisins and nuts. These boulders and many of the ledges bear bronze insets identifying the occupants of the graves.

In contrast to the more elaborate headstones, is a row of 4 thin dark gray stones showing initials without dates. These are remnants of earlier days when only notables had named graves. Along with democracy and the valuing of all individuals came expectations that each life deserves commemoration by name, date of birth and death, on a stone, in a family plot, in a public place for all to see. The variety of names and symbols on the grave markers attest to the ethnic, religious and national diversity of Brookline residents. As Ernest Bowditch had said of another cemetery, "It is reasonable and democratic."


The maintenance of a landscape design requires the constant care which Walnut Hills Cemetery has received over the years from its superintendents. Pruning is done primarily in the winter months to maintain the health of the trees and shrubs, to repair storm damage and protect visitors. The natural leaf litter is allowed to remain in the wooded area as mulch and fall leaves are carefully raked from the mowed lawns. Walnut Hill's trees include pine, oak, maple, cedar, sassafras, beech, and hemlock. Ground covers of low bush blueberry, Canada mayflower and wintergreen can be found in the wooded areas. The Cemetery staff and Board of Trustees endeavor to conserve the existing trees, restore shrubs and tree plantings and plan for new memorial areas for the future.