Tag Archives: Massachusetts cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #139: Copp’s Hill Burying Ground

Vintage postcard of Copp's Hill Burying Ground, postmarked 1909.

Vintage postcard of Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, postmarked 1909.

Copp’s Hill Burying Ground
Hull Street and Snowhill Street
Boston, Massachusetts
Telephone: (617) 635-4505
Founded: 1659
Closed: sometime during the 1850s
Size: 4 acres
Number of interments: more than 10,000
Open: Daily 9 AM to 5 PM
GPS coordinates: 42° 22′ 2″ N, 71° 3′ 19″ W

While the area near the Old North Church may have been used as a burying ground as early as 1633, the graveyard was officially laid out on February 20, 1659. It was the second graveyard in Boston, as King’s Chapel was founded right around 1630.

Originally called Windmill Hill, then the North Burying Ground, the graveyard came to be named after William Copp, a shoemaker who lived near what is now called Prince Street and had at one point owned the land. He and his family are buried in the graveyard now.

Also buried in the graveyard at the Reverend Doctors Mather. The Mather tomb contains the mortal remains of Increase (died 1723), Cotton (died 1727) and Samuel (died 1785). Cotton Mather may be best known these days for his encouragement and support of the Salem Witch Trials. He preached from horseback after the hanging of Reverend George Burroughs, who spoke the Lord’s Prayer flawlessly before the hangman dropped him. Witches weren’t supposed to be able to do that and people watching the hanging grew restive, but Mather said a devil stood at Burroughs’s shoulder and fed him the words. The trials — and executions — continued.

More than a thousand freed blacks and slaves were buried in Copp’s Hill by the time the Revolutionary War started. They had lived in the so-called “New Guinea” settlement at the base of the hill and are buried, for the most part, in unmarked graves on the Snowhill Street side of the graveyard. The Celebrate Boston website says that their markers were stolen and re-used as construction materials during the 1860s.

Vintage postcard of Copp's Hill Burying Ground and the Old North Church

Vintage postcard of Copp’s Hill Burying Ground and the Old North Church

According to New England Cemeteries: A Collector’s Guide, Copp’s Hill Burying Ground is half a block west of the Old North Church, where Paul Revere saw the lights that signaled “one if by land, two if by sea.” During the Revolutionary War, the British camped in the graveyard in order to shell Charlestown to the north and Bunker Hill. It is commonly believed that British soldiers used headstones for target practice, particularly one belonging to Daniel Malcolm, whose epitaph names him a “true son of liberty.”

Others at rest in Copp’s Hill Burying Ground are Edmund Hartt, shipyard owner and builder of the USS Constitution; Robert Newman, who raised the lantern to signal Paul Revere; and Prince Hall, an anti-slavery Revolutionary soldier who founded the black Masonic Order. Also buried there are thousands of artisans, craftspeople, and merchants who’d lived in the surrounding area.

Useful links:

The City of Boston page on Copp’s Hill has a map.

City of Boston Freedom Trail entry on Copp’s Hill

Celebrate Boston site, referenced above.

A bunch of photos of Copp’s Hill’s monuments on Grave Addiction.

The Freedom Trail website

Other Boston cemeteries on Cemetery Travel:

King’s Chapel Burying Ground

Granary Burying Ground

Central Burying Ground

Forest Hills Cemetery

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

A New England Road Trip Companion

New England Cemeteries: A Collector's GuideNew England Cemeteries: A Collector’s Guide by Andrew Kull

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The book jacket describes this as the “first and only” guide to the cemeteries of New England. I’m curious to know if that’s true. I know there were guides to Mt. Auburn and the other garden cemeteries published in the 19th century (unfortunately, I don’t have any of them in my collection), but I don’t know if there was an overall guide to the region — or if this is just a publisher’s hype.

Either way, this is a really fun book. If you’re making a road trip, as I’ve been lucky enough to do, throughout New England and wonder what lovely graveyards you might find along the way, this is the ideal guidebook. Andrew Kull seems to have actually visited these cemeteries and has opinionated, entertaining observations about them. I like that he directs H. P. Lovecraft “cultists” to ask directions to the author’s grave when they visit Swan Point Cemetery in Providence. I like also his assertion: “Burial Hill in Plymouth enjoys, without question, the most magnificent site of any cemetery in New England.” Doesn’t that just make you want to see for yourself?

The primary flaw is a dearth of photographs, although there are a few. In addition, New England Cemeteries jams 260 cemeteries, graveyards, and burial grounds into a mere 240-some pages (plus index and an essay on how to make grave rubbings), so you’re not getting in-depth information. In fact, you’re not even getting cemetery addresses, though the book does include opening hours, which were current in 1975. Still, for company on a road trip, Kull’s book is a useful and entertaining companion.

New copies are exorbitant, but you can find reasonably priced used copies on Amazon: New England Cemeteries: A Collector’s Guide

View all my Goodreads reviews.

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.