Tag Archives: Old Granary Burying Ground

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

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.

Cemetery of the Week #18: King’s Chapel Burying Ground

Death vs. Father Time

King’s Chapel Burying Ground
58 Tremont Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02108
Telephone: (617) 523-1749
Established: Approximately 1630. Burials ceased around 1796.
Number of Interments: Maybe as many of 1500
Size: Less than half an acre
Open: Daily 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. free of charge.

King’s Chapel Burying Ground, the first graveyard in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, seems to have been established as early as 1630, mere months after the foundation of the city. The historical plaque says that the land probably belonged originally to Isaac Johnson. His will directed that he be buried on his own land — and here he lies.

The initial colonists of Boston were such Puritans that they didn’t allow images engraved on their tombstones. Their markers that still exist are thick heavy stones recording only names and dates. William Paddy’s stone, dated 1658, is one of the oldest surviving grave markers in New England.

In 1688, the British governor seized land from the older part of the graveyard to build King’s Chapel. The burying ground takes its name from that church, though nothing else. The graveyard continued to be secular, unaffiliated with the adjacent church. That meant that no distinctions were made in the graveyard in terms of sect, or even of race. When people died, they needed to be planted. Until the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground opened in 1656, everyone in Boston ended up in King’s Chapel Burying Ground.

Charles Bahne’s Complete Guide to Boston’s Freedom Trail points out that the Puritans must have spun in their graves when the chapel was built. Aside from the simple desecration, the Anglican Church had been the reason they’d fled to the New World in the first place.

Although the original Puritans forbade anything but text on their grave markers, later preachers differentiated between ornamentation inside churches and on gravestones. This led to the familiar skull and crossbones that appear on so many of New England’s surviving headstones.

The King’s Chapel Burying Ground contains some spectacular death’s-heads. One of the stones from 1690 has a leering skull shaped like a Dia de los Muertos sweet. The bony forehead has raised eyebrows, but his nose is merely a pair of upended angles, one inside the other. His clenched teeth go straight across like pickets in a fence. The wings that stretch out behind him hold row upon row of feathers. Where we see a macabre reminder that our ancestors were all too familiar with the skull beneath the skin, they saw a memento mori — a nudge, as if they needed it, that no one knew the hour of his inescapable demise and everyone should be prepared to meet their Maker at any moment.

Of all the headstones in this graveyard, my favorites stand along the front walkway, watching Boston pass by outside their iron gate. These depict the struggle to snuff out life’s candle; Father Time, a robed patriarch with a knee-length beard, faces off against a skeletal Death.

Primary among the famous people buried in King’s Chapel Burying Ground is the first governor of the Massachusetts colony, John Winthrop. After his election as governor, Winthrop led seven hundred religious “Separatists” (what we’d call Puritans) to leave England and settle on a hilly peninsula they named after Boston, England. Winthrop proclaimed that this new Boston would be “a shining city on a hill,” a beacon to all others who wanted to lead an exemplary religious life. By the time of his death, Boston had swelled into a city of fifteen thousand people.

Since Winthrop died in 1649, I knew that the brick and granite table monument covering his grave must be a later addition. The style was wrong for a Puritan grave marker. The book Preachers, Patriots, and Plain Folks confirmed my suspicion, reporting that the new monument had been erected in 1920.

In the center of the graveyard stands a marker for William Dawes, the other man who rode to Lexington to announce the “British are coming!” He had the misfortune of being neglected by 19th-century poets, so Paul Revere’s is the name we connect with the Midnight Ride. Revere lies down the street at the Granary Burying Ground, under a monument much grander that Dawes’s. Dawes himself was moved out of the graveyard to Forest Hill Cemetery, but a small American flag still draw tourists to his original grave.

Not far from the church wall stands the headstone of Elizabeth Pain. Some books, including The Smithsonian Guide to Historic America, imply she inspired Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter. Pain’s marker gives no indication that she was seduced and impregnated by a churchman.

In the 1740s, gravediggers at King’s Chapel Burying Ground lamented that they were burying the dead four deep. By 1795, when the graveyard had surpassed full and headed toward critical mass, ground burials finally halted. The outer boundary of the cemetery, ringed with subterranean family tombs, continued to accept new residents until the 1970s.

Useful Links:

History and a map

Ghost stories

The Freedom Trail feature on King’s Chapel Burying Ground

A Walk Into History offers public walking tours of Boston’s Freedom Trail, including the King’s Chapel Burying Ground. Led by costumed guides, the 90-minute tour costs $13 for adults, $11 for seniors and students, and $7 for children. Tickets available at http://www.thefreedomtrail.org or at 148 Tremont St., Boston Common, Boston, MA 02111.

GPS information from CemeteryRegistry.us

Cemetery of the Week #61 : the Granary Burying Ground

Book I’ve reviewed that references King’s Chapel Burying Ground:

Preachers, Patriots, and Plain Folks

The American Resting Place

Famous and Curious Cemeteries