White Lions and Witches: Lowell Cemetery

October 17, 2012 — Lowell Cemetery isn’t quite one of Massachusetts’s top-tier cemeteries. There are at least a half dozen or so that I’d recommend visiting over it, but it’s so close. It’s only like two dead authors and a mausoleum section away.

I’m also not sure if I’m allowed to group cemeteries by tiers. But I do. And to be an elite cemetery in my view you need four things: 1) Famous corpses 2) Impressive and varied funerary art 3) An immersive natural setting, and 4) A sense of atmosphere (which often comes from age). More or less, anyway. I’m still kind of working out the system.

Located at 77 Knapp Avenue, the 170-year-old cemetery is well-treed and sprawls pleasantly on 85 acres above the Concord River. So that’s two out of four criteria. However, it doesn’t really have any famous interments, unless you count the guy who invented Moxie, a brigadier general in the Civil War, and a bunch of congressmen. Actually, you get negative points for congressmen. So that's what it's like to tell a political joke.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a wide range of interesting funeral art. There are plenty of beautiful old tombstones, of course, and a few of the expected angel statues and ornate crosses, but there are only a couple of surprises.

But that might be enough, because those two surprise make it a worthwhile destination, top-tier or not: a massive white lion and a spooky witch.

So Lowell Cemetery is Narnia. Let’s start with Aslan.

James Cook Ayer (1818-1878) made his fortune patenting and manufacturing medicinal products. That’s why he could afford to decay under a massive white lion carved out of 20 tons of Italian marble. I’ve never been up close to a real lion before, but this 12-foot-long beast with its gigantic head is at least life-sized, but only because there exist record-breaking-sized lions in the wild.

Certainly, lion statues are a dime a pride, but there’s something about the size and color combined with the fact that it’s a corpse weight that really make this piece remarkable. The cemetery has even adopted the sculpture as their symbol.

Of course, that’ because their other notable piece of funerary art is simply terrifying.

Dubbed Witch Bonney, it’s a bronze statue of a woman with outstretched arms holding some kind of flowing cape or long shawl or such above her head. It’s basically the Dracula pose. Its spookiness mainly comes from the green and black patina earned by a century or so of guarding the family plot, especially around her eyes, which are a soulless black (I looked in my Crayola box. That’s actually a color). It also sits prominently—or looms, I guess—on a hill in front of a white columned structure, further emphasizing the statue.

When we visited her there were pennies left at her feet, and a slim length of pink ribbon had been tied around one of her fingers. Offerings, I suppose.

Bonney gets her name from the family entombed on her plot. She gets her legend just because she’s a spooky old statue that stands out in a cemetery without any other spooky old statues.

The legend is the same you hear for any other spooky female-shaped grave statuary: Disrespect it and harm will befall you. One unique wrinkle in Witch Bonney’s story, though, centers around her blouse. It’s draped pretty low and looks like it’s only held up by her nipples. The story goes that it falls farther down every year, and that when it finally drops to her waist, the witch will rise again to wreak half-naked havoc on the town.

It’s a silly legend, especially since it’s obvious that she’s only kept at bay by Aslan.

I don't know what this means, but it scares me
more than Witch Bonney.

Not a grave marker.

Ok. Obviously there is more to see
than a white lion and a dark witch.
Note the dog head arms.