Tag Archives: Central Burying Ground

Weekly Photo Challenge: Spring

Letty Lent’s gravestone at the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Tarrytown, NY

In the spring of 2002, about this time of year, I took one of the best vacations of my life.  My husband Mason and I flew into Boston and rented a car, then we proceeded to visit 17 cemeteries in the next 11 days.  It was heavenly.

Boston was humid and bright.  We rested in the Central Burying Ground in the afternoon, watching squirrels chase each other with sticks.  The next day, on our way out of town, we stopped by Forest Hills Cemetery, where the forsythia bloomed in thickets.  Spring was coming, but it was early yet.

The Aylsworth family monument

The Aylsworth family monument

From Boston we drove to Providence.  One of the hills in Swan Point Cemetery burned with bright yellow daffodils. In addition, Swan Point had the most magnificent flowering trees I’ve ever seen.  To this day, I’ve seen nothing to compare with this weeping cherry.

Some cemeteries we visited were fascinating, if not especially pretty.  Gettysburg’s Soldiers National Cemetery seemed too macho to trouble itself with celebrating the season and breaking out in flowers.

That was not the case in Sleepy Hollow.  The perfumed air chimed with the songs of birds.  The river chattered to itself nearby, surrounded by trees bursting with vivid green leaves.  Spring made everything glad to be alive, especially me.

While I grew up in Michigan, spring felt like something you earned.  After the long gray winter, you pined for spring.  You celebrated every warm day, even if there were still snowdrifts in the shadows of the hills.  Every narcissus shoot and tulip stalk was worthy of celebration.  Spring was glorious, ephemeral, juicy and sweet.

In San Francisco, spring can be subtle.  In a normal year, the hills green up with every rainstorm.  The trees bloom in waves: the cherries, then the plums, then the apples.  Often a hard rain knocks the petals to the sidewalks before the beauty peaks.  The magnolias open their spectacular flowers, followed by the rhododendrons, the flowers singe in the sunshine — and then the show is over for another year.  The hills turn brown, the fog rolls in, and summer is long and cold.

My East Coast trip gave me almost two weeks of nothing but graveyards in springtime in the company of my husband.  Every moment was piquant and delicious and I savored them like you do the season’s first strawberries, bursting with sweetness and spring.

Here’s the challenge that started me off: Spring.


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

Guidebook to Boston’s Burying Grounds

Preachers, Patriots & Plain Folks: Boston's Burying Ground Guide to King's Chapel, Granary and Central CemeteriesPreachers, Patriots & Plain Folks: Boston’s Burying Ground Guide to King’s Chapel, Granary and Central Cemeteries by Charles Chauncey Wells
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This useful guide to touring the colonial burying grounds of downtown Boston explains the symbology of the gravestones and the histories of the graveyards. It contains capsule biographies of important personages, illustrated by some small black-and-white photographs, and includes a pull-out map with all the remaining gravestones numbered.

It also holds over a hundred pages of gravestone inventories — and lists the missing gravestones — from the three downtown graveyards. It’s all important information, but I would have preferred to have it split into two volumes so that the first half of the book could have been expanded. As a tourist, I’m much more interested in what’s there to be seen.

I also wish the photographs could have been larger. The gravestone carvings are so beautiful in Boston that they would have been better served by being better recorded, even if large glossy photos would have made the guidebook heavier to carry around.

Until a better guidebook comes along, this is the one to get if you’re planning to visit Boston’s King’s Chapel, Granary, or Central Burying Gounds. It’s an excellent introduction.

I ordered my copy from Amazon: Preachers, Patriots & Plain Folks.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.