Cemetery of the Week #109: Central Burying Ground

Coffin detail, Central Burying Ground

Coffin detail, Central Burying Ground

Central Burying Ground
On Boston Common at Boylston Street between Tremont Street and Charles Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02116
Telephone: 617-635-4505
Established: 1754
In Use: 1756 – 1856, although tomb burials continued into the 1950s and cremated remains were buried there in the 1960s.
Size: 1.4 acres
Number of interments: 5,000 originally?
Number of monuments: fewer than 500 remain
Open: The listing on Waymarking.com said they found the gate closed when they visited, but I haven’t been able to find any information about opening or closing times. I walked right in when I was there.

Boston’s Central Burying Ground is the least visited of the three downtown graveyards. (The other two are King’s Chapel Burying Ground and the Granary Burying Ground. Add links) The graveyard lies alongside Boylston Street at the edge of Boston Common. The 44-acre Common is American’s oldest public park, but before that, it was owned by William Blackstone, the first white settler in the area. He – and subsequent Bostonians – used the land to pasture their cattle in the 1600s. During the 1700s, it was used as a training field for the militia.

In the middle of the 18th century, city fathers set aside a portion of the Common as a burial ground for paupers. Lonely Planet quotes one account as saying the Central Burying Ground became the final home for “Roman Catholics and strangers dying in the town.” Many of its earliest graves went unmarked.

During the occupation of Boston in the American Revolution, the British army camped on the Common. British soldiers who died if disease during the siege or during the Battle of Bunker Hill were buried in trenches at the edge of the burying ground.

The monument to those reburied after the subway displaced them from their graves.

The monument to those reburied after the subway displaced them from their graves.

At one point, the Central Burying Ground connected with the Granary Burying Ground, but hundreds of graves were removed when the city cut Boylston Street through. The excavation of the original subway line in the 1890s displaced more graves. Some families moved the remains of their ancestors to Mount Auburn Cemetery, but others were re-interred in a mass grave marked by a large slate slab. Estimates range between 1,100 and 2,000 bodies of the 5,000 original burials were exhumed.

One of the notable features of this burying ground is that its old vault tombs are still in place. They stand inside a raised tumulus surrounded by a deep ditch. Rusted iron doors punctuate the grass-topped mound. Some of the family tombs still have marble nameplates.

The old tombs in the middle of the Central Burying Ground

The old tombs in the middle of the Central Burying Ground

The most “famous” person buried in one of the tombs of the Central Burying Ground is the bipolar artist Gilbert Stuart, whose painting of George Washington in his black judicial robes hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Stuart also painted the unfinished “Athenaeum Head”—Martha Washington’s favorite portrait of her husband—which appears on our one dollar bill. Due to his mental illness and his sharp tongue, Stuart died a pauper, replaced by painters with better social skills. He had no marker until 1897, when the Boston Paint and Clay Club erected a cenotaph adorned with a palm frond threaded through the thumbhole of a painter’s palette.

Willow weeping over a pair of urns

Willow weeping over a pair of urns

This graveyard has more recent monuments than in the other colonial-era burying grounds. In place of death’s-heads or soul effigies, these stones bear urns and willows. They also have specific epitaphs that address the visitor. Near the gate stands the stone of
Mrs. Susanna Brown, who passed in 1797, which says,

“Go home my frinds dry up your tea
rs For I shall rest till Christ apea

Both “tears” and “appears” wrapped to the lines below, because the stonecutter hadn’t left enough room.

The sentiment in this epitaph illustrates a new stage in the development of Christian philosophy. Rather than rotting in the ground with the Puritans or her soul winging away with the Anglicans buried under their soul effigies, Mrs. Brown was content to “rest” in her grave until Christ’s resurrection summoned the dead to be judged and sent to their final rewards. This, of course, was eventually replaced by the Victorian belief that all our loved ones would be awaiting us in Heaven.

The top of Frederick Gilbert's gravestone

The top of Frederick Gilbert’s gravestone

In the Central Burying Ground lay a number of Masons. The most ornate Masonic gravestone of all remembers Mr. Frederick Gilbert, who died “Octr 2d 1802.” His monument is adorned with a compass and the phrase “He liv’d within compass,” seven stars, a moon and a sun, a shovel and a pick, and a skeleton lying in a toe-pincher coffin. His epitaph reads:

“Sure as yon Sun shall leave old Ocean’s bed,
And o’er the Earth its genial influence shed;
Sure as chaste Cynthia wanders through the skie,
Or stars with bright effulgences shine on high;
So sure had Gilbert’s spirit soar’d above,
To the celestial Lodge in realms of love.”

Gilbert doesn’t seem to have left much mark on history beyond his gravestone, but perhaps that’s enough.

Rubbing isn’t allowed on these old stones, since they are not engraved very deeply and are old and fragile.  Preachers, Patriots, and Plain Folks suggests you visit in late afternoon to catch the stones in their best light.

Some Useful Links:

ETA:  I just discovered there’s a ghost story, too.

The City of Boston listing for the burying ground

A map and directions, care of Celebrate Boston

The Lonely Planet listing for the Central Burying Ground

GPS information via waymarking.com

My review of Preachers, Patriots, & Plain Folks

2 responses to “Cemetery of the Week #109: Central Burying Ground

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