Old Granary Burying Ground
101a Tremont Street at Bromfield
Boston, MA 02108
Telephone: (617) 635-4505
Size: 2 acres
Number of interments: 5000, or perhaps as many as 8000, under 2345 markers
Open: Daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., although some areas may be closed during the restoration work.
This weekend and throughout the summer: The Freedom Trail Organization offers a full schedule of historical tours, led by a costumed guide. The schedule is here. Tickets range from $6-$12.
Established in 1660 in an attempt to alleviate the crowding at King’s Chapel Burying Ground, the Granary Burying Ground takes its name from a grain storehouse that once stood nearby. More than 2300 — and perhaps as many as 8,000 — corpses lay inside this small patch of ground, which barely covers two acres. One source estimates that as many as 20 bodies lie beneath each tombstone.
Unfortunately, few of the grave markers actually mark graves any longer. Around the dawn of the 20th century, groundskeepers re-aligned the gravestones to make it easy to mow between them. In some cases, the footstones — which once marked the foot of a grave like a footboard on a bed frame — now lean against their headstones. At least they hadn’t been lost altogether. Perhaps during the current renovation, some well-meaning soul will set them back up the way they belong.
The Old Granary Burying Ground is the final home of many of Boston’s Revolutionary War patriots, including James Otis (“Taxation without representation is tyranny.”), Robert Treat Paine (signer of the Declaration of Independence and first Massachusetts Attorney General), and victims of the Boston Massacre, including Crispus Attucks.
In the center of the graveyard stands a granite obelisk labeled Franklin in large, proud capitals. It marks the grave of Benjamin Franklin’s parents, Josiah and Abiah. The original stone he’d chosen was replaced by this one in 1827, erected by local citizens who wanted to lay claim to the glory of their native son, despite the fact that he’d preferred to be buried in Philadelphia. One of my antique postcards incorrectly identifies the monument as Franklin’s own, a misconception that was undoubtedly good for tourism.
It’s common for visitors to line up to be photographed beside the monuments of Paul Revere and Samuel Adams. Also in the graveyard is the monument to John Hancock, although he may no longer lie beneath it. One story says that grave robbers stole his hand first, whether because they couldn’t remove his rings or because a collector wanted the hand that signed the Declaration of Independence. His body may have vanished during the restoration of his gravesite. I don’t know how much truth there is in these allegations.
Another gravestone that attracts pilgrims is that of Mary Goose. Mary was the first wife of Isaac Goose, whose second wife Elizabeth may or may not have been the famous Mother Goose. Legend has it that Elizabeth’s son-in-law collected her stories into Songs for the Nursery, or Mother Goose’s Melodies, but scholars find it suspicious that no copy of the original book survived. Many of the Mother Goose tales date back to France in the late 1600s. Still, some old guidebooks to Boston identify Mary as Mother Goose.
In the Granary Burying Ground, ornamentation on gravestones runs a gamut from the early awkward death’s-heads common in King’s Chapel Burying Ground to anatomically correct skulls to cherubs with portrait-like faces. I particularly liked the cherubs with hair etched by a delicate tool. These “soul effigies” indicate a huge shift in Christian philosophy, from the Puritan belief that only the Elect will rise to Heaven while their bodies moldered in the grave to a general sense that all souls took flight upon the body’s death and Heaven was available to all.
Some of the stones can be traced to particular carvers, which demonstrates an advance in how people valued graveyards. Once tombstones were acknowledged as works of art — instead of a necessary evil — artists wanted to claim to their designs. Some carvers even autographed their stones. Henry Christian Geyer advertised his talents in the local papers. He was a fisherman who had studied birds well enough to put realistic wings on his cherubs.
Unlike earlier headstones, the Granary stones offer epitaphs that record how the survivors felt about their losses. These seemed to have come into fashion in the late 1700s. One that struck me said:
“To this sad shrine who ’ere thou art draw near
Here lies the Friend most joy’d, the Son most dear
Who ne’er knew joy, but Friendship might divide
Or gave his father Grief, but when he died.”
The Granary Burying Ground is guard by a small Egyptian-style gate. Egyptian grave ornaments didn’t come into fashion until after Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign nearly two centuries after this cemetery was founded. The granite gate was designed by Solomon Willard, architect of the Bunker Hill Monument. It was quarried in nearby Quincy and unveiled in 1840.
In 1879, the last body sank into the dirt of the Granary Burying Ground. Now it invites visitors to touch history.
ETA: More information about John Hancock’s monument and his missing hand, via Gravely Speaking.
Interesting tidbits about the Granary Burying Ground and a map of Boston
The Granary Burying Ground is getting a facelift.
My review of a guidebook to Boston’s historic burying grounds
Other Revolutionary War heroes on Cemetery Travel:
Cemetery of the Week #18: King’s Chapel Burying Ground in Boston, Massachusetts
Cemetery of the Week #33: Old Dutch Burying Ground, Tarrytown, New York
Cemetery of the Week #41: Trinity Churchyard, New York City, New York
Cemetery of the Week #43: Christ Church Burial Ground, Philadephia, Pennsylvania
Cemetery of the Week #73: St. Paul’s Chapel churchyard, New York City, New York
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