Cemetery of the Week #18: King’s Chapel Burying Ground

Death vs. Father Time

King’s Chapel Burying Ground
58 Tremont Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02108
Telephone: (617) 523-1749
Established: Approximately 1630. Burials ceased around 1796.
Number of Interments: Maybe as many of 1500
Size: Less than half an acre
Open: Daily 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. free of charge.

King’s Chapel Burying Ground, the first graveyard in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, seems to have been established as early as 1630, mere months after the foundation of the city. The historical plaque says that the land probably belonged originally to Isaac Johnson. His will directed that he be buried on his own land — and here he lies.

The initial colonists of Boston were such Puritans that they didn’t allow images engraved on their tombstones. Their markers that still exist are thick heavy stones recording only names and dates. William Paddy’s stone, dated 1658, is one of the oldest surviving grave markers in New England.

In 1688, the British governor seized land from the older part of the graveyard to build King’s Chapel. The burying ground takes its name from that church, though nothing else. The graveyard continued to be secular, unaffiliated with the adjacent church. That meant that no distinctions were made in the graveyard in terms of sect, or even of race. When people died, they needed to be planted. Until the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground opened in 1656, everyone in Boston ended up in King’s Chapel Burying Ground.

Charles Bahne’s Complete Guide to Boston’s Freedom Trail points out that the Puritans must have spun in their graves when the chapel was built. Aside from the simple desecration, the Anglican Church had been the reason they’d fled to the New World in the first place.

Although the original Puritans forbade anything but text on their grave markers, later preachers differentiated between ornamentation inside churches and on gravestones. This led to the familiar skull and crossbones that appear on so many of New England’s surviving headstones.

The King’s Chapel Burying Ground contains some spectacular death’s-heads. One of the stones from 1690 has a leering skull shaped like a Dia de los Muertos sweet. The bony forehead has raised eyebrows, but his nose is merely a pair of upended angles, one inside the other. His clenched teeth go straight across like pickets in a fence. The wings that stretch out behind him hold row upon row of feathers. Where we see a macabre reminder that our ancestors were all too familiar with the skull beneath the skin, they saw a memento mori — a nudge, as if they needed it, that no one knew the hour of his inescapable demise and everyone should be prepared to meet their Maker at any moment.

Of all the headstones in this graveyard, my favorites stand along the front walkway, watching Boston pass by outside their iron gate. These depict the struggle to snuff out life’s candle; Father Time, a robed patriarch with a knee-length beard, faces off against a skeletal Death.

Primary among the famous people buried in King’s Chapel Burying Ground is the first governor of the Massachusetts colony, John Winthrop. After his election as governor, Winthrop led seven hundred religious “Separatists” (what we’d call Puritans) to leave England and settle on a hilly peninsula they named after Boston, England. Winthrop proclaimed that this new Boston would be “a shining city on a hill,” a beacon to all others who wanted to lead an exemplary religious life. By the time of his death, Boston had swelled into a city of fifteen thousand people.

Since Winthrop died in 1649, I knew that the brick and granite table monument covering his grave must be a later addition. The style was wrong for a Puritan grave marker. The book Preachers, Patriots, and Plain Folks confirmed my suspicion, reporting that the new monument had been erected in 1920.

In the center of the graveyard stands a marker for William Dawes, the other man who rode to Lexington to announce the “British are coming!” He had the misfortune of being neglected by 19th-century poets, so Paul Revere’s is the name we connect with the Midnight Ride. Revere lies down the street at the Granary Burying Ground, under a monument much grander that Dawes’s. Dawes himself was moved out of the graveyard to Forest Hill Cemetery, but a small American flag still draw tourists to his original grave.

Not far from the church wall stands the headstone of Elizabeth Pain. Some books, including The Smithsonian Guide to Historic America, imply she inspired Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter. Pain’s marker gives no indication that she was seduced and impregnated by a churchman.

In the 1740s, gravediggers at King’s Chapel Burying Ground lamented that they were burying the dead four deep. By 1795, when the graveyard had surpassed full and headed toward critical mass, ground burials finally halted. The outer boundary of the cemetery, ringed with subterranean family tombs, continued to accept new residents until the 1970s.

Useful Links:

History and a map

Ghost stories

The Freedom Trail feature on King’s Chapel Burying Ground

A Walk Into History offers public walking tours of Boston’s Freedom Trail, including the King’s Chapel Burying Ground. Led by costumed guides, the 90-minute tour costs $13 for adults, $11 for seniors and students, and $7 for children. Tickets available at http://www.thefreedomtrail.org or at 148 Tremont St., Boston Common, Boston, MA 02111.

GPS information from CemeteryRegistry.us

Cemetery of the Week #61 : the Granary Burying Ground

Book I’ve reviewed that references King’s Chapel Burying Ground:

Preachers, Patriots, and Plain Folks

The American Resting Place

Famous and Curious Cemeteries


4 responses to “Cemetery of the Week #18: King’s Chapel Burying Ground

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