On the Edge

Grave Concerns and Tall Tales
As the college prepares to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mary Lyon's birth, questions surrounding her death have also been resurrected. Where is Mary Lyon buried? Farrar Williams '97 sparked an online discussion of this topic by asking an MHC computer newsgroup whether the College founder's remains really rest in the plot behind Mary Lyon Hall.

The rumor that Lyon was buried elsewhere isn't new ... in fact, a 1936 Mount Holyoke News article discredits a "recent rumor" that Lyon was actually interred at her birthplace in Buckland, Massachusetts. Another story reported by two students in a 1980 anthropology paper spins this wildly improbable tale: delegates arriving for Lyon's funeral from Wheaton (Lyon had helped establish Wheaton Female Seminary) stole her body but were chased and caught by the trustees, who then buried her on campus. Not to be outdone, the Wheaton delegates allegedly dug up the body and re-interred it at their institution. A related story claims Mount Holyoke trustees never paid attention to the Wheaton rumor because they had actually taken Lyon's body themselves and buried it in Buckland while pretending to have buried it on campus.

It's a good story, but there's little reason to believe it's true, according to documents in the Mount Holyoke archives. One of them, a faculty-written account from the week of Lyon's death, says her body lay in the seminary building until the funeral and was seen by virtually the entire campus community as each person paid last respects.

Describing Lyon's funeral on March 8, 1849, the journal writer makes it clear that our founder is indeed buried at Mount Holyoke. "From church the long procession moved to the grave. This is on the seminary grounds a little south of the orchard ... The trustees design to enclose a spot 30 feet square by an iron fence for a seminary burying ground. A monument will be placed over the grave. It is gratifying to our feelings and seems peculiarly appropriate that the grave should be on our grounds instead of in the common burying ground ... " the account states.

Further evidence is provided by Elizabeth Alden Green's 1979 book Mary Lyon and Mount Holyoke: Opening the Gates. The author notes that Lyon's casket was "sealed in a stone vault and made water tight with cement. On top of the vault a huge granite block was placed; this acted as a base for the huge shaft of Italian marble which still bears the inscriptions dedicated to Mary Lyon." Green concludes, "No one could have dug up that grave without the whole college community knowing about it."

Archival material suggests that, whatever the legend's appeal to the imagination, people should look beyond it to the facts. Besides, even if Mary Lyon's body wasn't buried here, her heart certainly remains on campus. Now if we could only solve the mystery of why Farrar Williams and others report seeing an eggplant atop Lyon's grave every fall ... but that's another story.

Students relax--as well as they can, wearing corsets-- by Mary Lyon's grave in the spring of 1884.

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Photo credits:

Jim Gipe
Gabriel A. Cooney
US Postal Service

Illustration credits:

Janet Street
Tim Toffoli
Seymour Chwast CD Collection

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Vista is published in summer, fall, winter, and spring by the Mount Holyoke College Office of Communications, South Hadley, MA 01075-1459.

Vista is produced for alumnae; prospective and current MHC students; MHC faculty and staff; parents of current students; institutional advancement, guidance, and media professionals; and other friends of the College.

Emily Harrison Weir

Tim Toffoli

Barry Smith

Kevin McCaffrey
Lu Stone '60

Dan Wilga

Cheri Cross

© 1996 by Mount Holyoke College. Portions of Vista may be reproduced with the permission of the Office of Communications, 20 Mary E. Woolley Hall, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA 01075-1459; 413-538-2222; email to: eweir@mtholyoke.edu.