David Barnett, M.S. ’83, Ph.D. ’87, has been passionate about plants for as long as he can remember. And as CEO of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he has fostered a culture of environmental sustainability with a goal of restoring the national landmark to its original beauty.
Growing up in Connecticut, he worked for his father, a landscape architect, and was quickly drawn to horticulture. “I grew up in the business,” Barnett said. He attended the University of Connecticut and quickly switched from liberal arts to pursue environmental horticulture. After graduation, Barnett moved to Chicago and worked for The Morton Arboretum before contacting Richard Harris, the late professor of environmental horticulture at UC Davis, who invited him to visit the campus. “I just loved it. So I made it official,” Barnett said.
Shortly after his time at UC Davis, Barnett returned to the East Coast as director of horticulture for Mount Auburn Cemetery, the first garden cemetery in the United States. The rural cemetery movement helped create public parks on a national scale. Before, cemeteries existed primarily in churchyards. Rural cemeteries, like Mount Auburn, were meant to stand alone. “It was designed to be a picturesque, inspiring, beautiful place for living while still serving as a place for burial and commemoration,” Barnett said.
Barnett has now been CEO for 10 years. Looking back, he said he is proud of the restoration of the Bigelow Chapel. The 19th century building reopened in December featuring a floor-to-ceiling glass addition.
His position, he said, also has given him a new perspective on death. “Whether you’re very religious or not at all, there’s an understanding that we pass through this place and Mount Auburn is a place to maintain the legacy of every individual, world famous or unknown and everyone in between.”