Tag Archives: Cambridge cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #81: the Old Burying Ground

The church was built after the graveyard opened.

Old Burying Ground
1450 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
Phone: 617-349-4890
Founded: 1635
Size: 2.5 acres
Number of interments: Unknown. More than 1200 known graves.
Open: dawn to dusk

The sign on the fence reads: “Old Burying Ground. Burial place of old settlers, Tory landowners and slaves, soldiers, presidents of Harvard, and prominent men of Cambridge.” Founded in 1635, the Old Burying Ground served as the only graveyard for the city of Cambridge for over 200 years.

It was linked with nearby Harvard University since the school received its charter in 1636. Eight Harvard presidents rest here, including 3 of the first 4. The university decided to honor them in 1846, but not all of them had headstones that had survived. Harvard apparently opened several graves, then decided one held the man they wanted. The remains, wrapped in a tarpaulin stuffed with tansy (to mitigate the odor of decay), might actually be the town’s second minister, who died in 1668.

Restoration of a veteran’s grave

The graveyard holds the remains of at 19 soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War. In 1870, with centennial fever lighting the town, a granite shaft was erected by the townsfolk to the memory of the men who’d died for freedom. Among them were two black slaves, Neptune Frost and Cato Stedman. They are honored with a sign on the fence. The exact locations of their graves are unknown.

I suppose it’s not surprising that so much history has been lost. The oldest headstone in the Old Burying Ground belongs to Annie Erinton, died 1653, although it may have been placed later. Headstones themselves didn’t become common until the 1670s. Even after that, the burial ground was used as a sheep pen and city records lament the shameful state of the graveyard over the course of its life.

Still, much that is beautiful remains. Marilyn Yalom points out in The American Resting Place that, in the Old Burying Ground, you can see graveyard iconography in flux. “In the oldest section, death’s-heads dating from the 1690s are lined up shoulder to shoulder… Midway across the field, angels with curly hair and soaring wings, dating from the 1730s and 1740s, begin to infiltrate the death’s-heads.” The final part of the graveyard is adorned with urns and willows from the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries.  My post on the evolution of death’s-heads is here.

Cambridge opened a new graveyard in 1811 and burials in the Old Burying Ground dropped to a trickle. Richard Henry Dana Jr., author of Two Years Before the Mast, was one of the last people to be buried in a family tomb in 1879. The last person to be buried there was Christ Church’s minister Gardiner Day, whose ashes were interred under a path in 1981.

Useful links:

History and notable burials

Fodor’s thinks the graveyard is spooky.

Epitaphs from the Old Burial Ground from the earliest date until 1800

GPS information at CemeteryRegistry.us

The Evolution of the Death’s Head

Originally, the Puritans in America forbade any decoration on their gravestones.  The earliest markers that still exist show only names and occasionally the death date.  Later, the prohibition eased to the point that ornamentation on gravestones were okay, as long as the churches remained plain.  Carvers began to adorn the crests of grave markers with skulls.

The earliest stone here shows a blank-eyed round death’s head, a winged skull with clenched teeth beneath a simple pair of crossed bones.  The skull’s nose is indicated by a tiny triangle and the contours of bone by incised curves.

The second stone has a more heart-shaped skull with eyebrows and what looks like a mustache.   It’s no more realistic than the first, but the wings look as if they could have been carved from life.

John Palfrey’s stone might date from between those two, but I’m putting it later since the carving is more detailed.  I like the disk that crowns the skull, flanked by its waves and coils.  The eye sockets have a more realistic shape, but the arched eyebrows are attached to the nose triangle.

The next two stones are decorated with soul effigies rather than grinning skulls.  In both cases, the faces are staring and don’t seem to be having a lot of fun.   In place of necks, the heads have triumphantly upraised wings.  Their epitaphs both begin “Here lyes Buried the (or ye) Body,” but the sense is that the soul has flown away.

I’m not sure how to place the two figures that follow, but I suspect that they are later, since the faces seem to be individualized and more life-like than the earlier stones. The first is headed “Memento Mori”: Remember Death, sometimes translated as Remember You will Die.  The epitaph continues “The Remains of Cap Edward Marrett are here interred.”  I like the hair plastered down to the head of Captain Marrett’s effigy, in addition to its narrowed eyes and pinched mouth.

Thomae Marsh Armigeri’s stone has a Latin inscription beneath an angelic effigy with a be-ringed wig.  His eyes seem to frown from the stone, but his face is unlined. The wings are held awkwardly.  If I saw this thing flying at me, I’d be frightened.  It, more than the others here, personalizes the dead man.  I wonder what his story is and why he was so grumpy.

The next stone is in a different style, but I wanted to include it as an example of a portrait stone.  The epitaph curving above it says, “We fall to rise. We die to live.”  Still a deeply Christian sentiment, but amidst the acceptance of death is the hope for a better world.  The bust’s mouth remains an unamused line, but his eyebrows and hairline have personality.

I love the cherub faces atop the final stone.  The wings have a profusion of feathers, so much so that they almost look like Elizabethan neck ruffs.  The mouths and noses seem more lifelike than anything we’ve seen yet — and the hair almost seems to have a life of its own.  The eyes are still blank and clouded, but it seems that life has only recently departed.

All of these stones come from the Old Town Burying Ground in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near Harvard Square.  It will be this week’s Cemetery of the Week.

Gravestone carving isn’t my special interest, so I welcome correction in the comments below. I’d love to learn more.