Tag Archives: Massachusetts cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #61: Granary Burying Ground

The Granary Burying Ground in springtime

Old Granary Burying Ground
101a Tremont Street at Bromfield
Boston, MA 02108
Telephone: (617) 635-4505
Founded: 1660
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.

Paul Revere’s gravestone

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.

John Hancock’s monument

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.

Useful links:
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

Luminous Cemetery Photographs

Final Thoughts: Eternal Beauty in StoneFinal Thoughts: Eternal Beauty in Stone by John Thomas Grant

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a spectacularly beautiful book, which I fully expected after seeing Grant’s photography by way of the cemetery groups on Facebook. His pictures capture the vivid colors of spring, summer, and autumn, as well as the indignities wrought by time, lichen, and pollution. The photos manage to be both joyful and melancholy, like the best exploration of a cemetery on a sunny day.

Unfortunately, rather than caption the photographs as to where they were taken, there’s an index with minuscule print on the penultimate page. I’m going to have to do the work to cross-reference the photos, because there are monuments that Grant has documented that I would like to see for myself.

The book’s text is primarily limited to epitaphs drawn from Grant’s cemetery travels. That element disappointed me, since the epitaphs appear without any identifying information beyond a date — which I assume is the date of death on the tombstone from which they are copied, although that isn’t made clear. I’d like to know more. What state did the epitaph come from? What city? What graveyard? Was the person it remembers male, female, young, old? Can anything be inferred about the family’s religious beliefs or familial connections or social relationships? Is the epitaph original to the stone from which it came? Is this person individualized? Or are the epitaphs quoted from scripture or hymns or poetry of the time?

Without more information, the epitaphs became tedious. They appear to be mostly Christian, mostly Victorian, and while they don’t seem to repeat exactly, their all too similar sentiments become repetitious.

Several years ago, I heard a fascinating presentation at an Association for Gravestone Studies conference on the origins of familiar epitaphs. I wish Grant had included some of that information here.

About halfway through the book, I gave up on reading the epitaphs altogether and returned to simply gazing at the wonderful pictures. They are where the true magic of this book lies.

You can get your own copy of this book here: Final Thoughts: Eternal Beauty in Stone. Buy a copy for a friend who needs to be shown what it is you see when you visit a cemetery.

View all my reviews

The primary text on Mount Auburn Cemetery

Silent City on a Hill: Picturesque Landscapes of Memory And Boston's Mount Auburn CemeterySilent City on a Hill: Picturesque Landscapes of Memory And Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery by Blanche M.G. Linden

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mount Auburn is arguably the most important cemetery in America. Founded by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1831, Mount Auburn was the first nonsectarian graveyard in this country, opened in a beautiful woodland outside of the city of Boston. It single-handedly began the “rural” or “garden” cemetery movement, where a premium was placed on the uplifting, consoling beauty of nature.

Linden-Ward’s Silent City on a Hill places Mount Auburn in a context of the “grim graveyards and common pits” that preceded it, as well as the carefully designed gardens of England, where nature was “improved” to make it more melancholy or inspirational.

Although it leans heavier on text than image, the book holds a wealth of black-and-white illustrations. Since Mount Auburn was so influential, artists such as engraved James Smillie recorded it in great detail. Often the scenes of the original engravings are recaptured by photographer Alan Ward, providing a sense of continuity through the centuries.

While the book comes down on the scholarly end of the spectrum (it includes 26 pages of footnotes and a 16-page bibliography), it is readable and full of information that would appeal to anyone interested in the history of burial and commemoration.

For my tastes, however, Silent City on a Hill contains too much information on garden design and not enough of the sense of humor inherent in its title. Some color pictures would have been nice, too. This book just doesn’t do justice to the splendor of Mount Auburn.

View all my reviews

Cemetery of the Week #31: Mount Auburn Cemetery

Mary Baker Eddy’s monument at Mount Auburn Cemetery

Mount Auburn Cemetery
580 Mount Auburn St.
Cambridge, MA 02138
Telephone: (617) 547-7105
Founded: 1831
Size: 175 acres
Number of Interments: 95,000, give or take
Open: October through April: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. From May through August, the grounds remain open until 7 p.m. Closing times in September vary.

Following in the footsteps of Pere Lachaise in Paris and Highgate Cemetery in London, Mount Auburn Cemetery liberated the dead from the churchyard to rest in the beautiful arms of nature. As America’s first garden cemetery, Mount Auburn was nothing less than a paradigm shift on the soil of Massachusetts.

Dr. Jacob Bigelow, the foremost botanist in New England and a professor at Harvard Medical School, began the discussion of opening a country cemetery in 1825. In 1830, the Mount Auburn site — one mile from Harvard and four miles from Boston — was chosen for its beauty. It had hillocks and dells, valleys and promontories. With Bigelow’s assistance, the cemetery was carefully designed to give a very real sense of space and privacy. Plantings were chosen to turn the cemetery into an arboretum of unparalleled loveliness.

People used Mount Auburn Cemetery for everything, according to an Englishman quoted in Tom Weil’s The Cemetery Book: “Cemeteries here are all the ‘rage’; people lounge in them and use them (as their tastes are inclined) for walking, making love, weeping, sentimentalizing, and every thing in short.” The cemetery was so popular that it inspired not only garden cemeteries across the U.S., but also the urban park movement.

At 72 acres, Mount Auburn Cemetery was the largest burial ground in the United States. (The New Haven Burial Ground, which was considered large at the time, encompassed only six acres.) The cemetery has now swelled to 175 acres, too large to comfortably explore in a single day. Luckily, the cemetery office offers a one-hour driving tour as well as two 75-minute walking tours on cassette tapes or CDs. These are available for for purchase or rental during office hours (8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily at the Entrance Gate). Audio players are also available for rent, or you may bring your own.

In addition, a variety of maps and materials about the Cemetery are available at the Entrance Gate and in the Cemetery office. These materials include flyers highlighting a “Person of the Week,” featuring poetry by the resident bards, and locating the State Champion trees. They may also have picture postcards and copies of the books featuring Mount Auburn. I bought my copy of Blanche Linden’s Silent City on a Hill: Picturesque Landscapes of Memory and Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery there.

Although they seem to have nothing scheduled for September, the Friends of Mount Auburn Cemetery offer guided walking tours, slide lectures, and special events at the cemetery. In addition to visiting the celebrities buried there, the Friends explore the history, horticulture, art, and architecture of the cemetery.

Broad Meadow Brook Wildlife Sanctuary leads birdwatching tours of Mount Auburn. Check here for the next scheduled event. Here’s one of the birds I saw there.

With so many other things to see and do at Mount Auburn, the graves serve as adornments, not as the distinguishing features. Still, Famous and Curious Cemeteries by John Frances Marion calls Mount Auburn the “Westminster Abbey of America.” Its permanent residents include Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the poet James Russell Lowell, Amy Lowell (who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry), John Bartlett (compiler of the Familiar Quotations), publishers George H. Mifflin, Charles Little, and James Brown, as well as Dorothea Dix, who pioneered humane treatment for insanity, the painter Winslow Homer, Julia Ward Howe, author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science.

I suspect autumn must be quite spectacular amidst such luminaries.

Useful links:

Mount Auburn Cemetery website

Birds of Mount Auburn checklist

Calendar of events

Books I’ve reviewed that reference Mount Auburn:

Silent City on a Hill: Picturesque Landscapes of Memory And Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery

The American Resting Place: 400 Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds

The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History

Famous and Curious Cemeteries: A Pictorial, Historical, and Anecdotal View of American and European Cemeteries

The Cemetery Book: Graveyards, Catacombs and Other Travel Haunts Around the World

Victorian Cemetery Art


Weekly Photo Challenge: Path

A Path at Mount Auburn Cemetery

Of all the cemeteries I’ve visited, Massachusetts’ Mount Auburn Cemetery has the most remarkable paths.  The cemetery is so big that it doesn’t have roadways capable of reaching all its graves.  Some graves actually lie along paths.  The paths are so official that they even have street signs.

Eagle and street sign in Mount Auburn

As I explored Mount Auburn, I discovered a crowd of people gathered beneath a tree on Catalpa Path.  The telephoto showed me what had drawn them together…

A Golden Eagle at Mount Auburn

I’ve seen some amazing things in graveyards, but this stoic bird is one of my favorites.

Cemetery of the Week #31: Mount Auburn Cemetery