Fireman monument, North Burial Ground, Rhode Island
Old North Burial Ground
5 Branch Avenue at North Main Street
Providence, Rhode Island 02904
Telephone: (401) 331-0177 Founded: 1700 Size: 109 acres Number of interments: more than 73,00 people Number of surviving gravestones: 35,000 Open: Seven days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Office hours are Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Overshadowed by exquisite Swan Point Cemetery, which was established in 1846, the Old North Burial Ground is the oldest public cemetery in Providence.
The public tomb, erected by the City of Providence in 1903.
In 1700, a plaque on the public holding tomb (built in 1903) records, “This land was set apart by the town of Providence as a place for the burial of the dead.” By 1848, when surviving records began to been kept, 22 acres had already been filled.
Among those buried in the North Burial Ground are a number of Rhode Island governors, Providence city mayors, congressmen, senators, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Horace Mann, the champion of universal free public education, is buried here, as is Sarah Helen Whitman, a poet who inspired several of Edgar Allan Poe’s poems.
Anchor and windlass grave marker in the Old North Burial Ground, Providence
Maps of notable burials for a self-led walking tour are available from the office.
My favorite grave monuments are the ones that demonstrate Providence’s shipping history. I didn’t note the life commemorated by the anchor and windlass, but in general, anchors symbolize Christian faith, as something that holds fast through the tempests of life. Captain Joseph Tillinghast’s monument has this epitaph:
Tho’ Borea’s blast and Neptune’s waves have tossed me to and fro, yet in spite of both by God’s decree I harbor here below. And though at anchor now I ride with many of our fleet, yet away again I shall set sail our Admiral Christ to meet.
Another chatty stone that caught my eye belongs to Jabez R. Blanding, who became a Brevet Captain in the Civil War. His monument says, “After serving with distinguished courage in the US Army from the commencement to the those of the Civil War, he was basely assasinated (sic) while in the discharge of his military duties at Grenada, Mississippi April 30, 1866 in his 25th year.” I’m curious to know the story behind that.
Angel guiding two children to Heaven, North Burial Ground, Rhode Island
I found this stone to the memory of two children very touching, too. An angel is leading one by the hand while another is eagerly flying toward heaven. That image must have been a sliver in the heart each time their parents visited the grave.
Swan Point Cemetery
585 Blackstone Boulevard
Providence, Rhode Island 02906
Telephone: 410-272-1314 Founded: 1846 Size: 210 acres Number of interments: approximately 40,000 Open: Depending on the weather, Swan Point is open daily from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time and from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m. during Daylight Savings. Children under 16 must be accompanied by an adult.
Founded on just 60 acres in 1846, Rhode Island’s Swan Point Cemetery absorbed people who had been previously buried in the West Burial Ground and other earlier graveyards around Providence. The oldest section of the cemetery, overlooking the Seekonk River, contains graves that date back as early as 1722.
In 1886, Chicago-based landscape architect H.W.S. Cleveland was hired to develop Blackstone Boulevard through the cemetery. He’s responsible for the wall of large boulders that front Blackstone Boulevard for more than a mile, which was completed in 1900. In 1903, the Butler Avenue trolley car was extended to the cemetery, where a fieldstone shelter was constructed for riders. Many people came out just to walk the grounds.
The Aylsworth family monument
Even now, Swan Point’s chief draw is the beauty of its landscaping, which varies from lawn to forest trees to rhododendrons, azaleas, magnolias, and other flowering shrubs. In all it contains more than 200 kinds of trees and shrubs, most of them labeled. In the spring, daffodils gild the old section by the river.
Swan Point is full of lovely Victorian statuary, as well. Twenty-three former governors of Rhode Island are buried in Swan Point, each under a suitably grand monument.
Also among the better known people buried at Swan Point Cemetery is Major Sullivan Ballou, wounded in the first battle of Bull Run, whose beautiful farewell letter to his wife featured in Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary.
H. P. Lovecraft’s tombstone
Swan Point’s most famous permanent resident is Howard Pillips Lovecraft. In New England Cemeteries: A Collector’s Guide, published in 1975, Andrew Kull wrote that Lovecraft’s grave was “somewhat difficult to find, since the name is inscribed on the monument of another family.” He recommended “cultists” ask at the office. When I visited in 2002, I thought my husband and I might be regarded as weirdoes, but the secretary treated our request as a common occurrence. She pulled out a drawer full of manila files. Inside Lovecraft’s file waited a stack of maps, already copied. She traced our route and sent us on our way without batting an eye. “Look for an obelisk that says Phillips,” she directed. “He’s right behind that.”
We took the main drive through the cemetery, swung around the 40-foot-tall Barnaby column — topped by a blindingly white muse — zigged and zagged briefly, then saw the Phillips monument directly ahead. The original monument on the plot belonged to Lovecraft’s grandparents. The back of it held Lovecraft’s parents’ name and dates. At the bottom, he was remembered as Howard P. Lovecraft, “Their Son.”
A smaller stone rose nearby. After New England Cemeteries: A Collector’s Guide saw print, Dirk W. Mosig — at that time, the leading authority on Lovecraft — solicited contributions to erect an individual tombstone. He unveiled it during a small ceremony in 1977. The low red granite marker spelled out Howard Phillips Lovecraft, August 20, 1890 – March 15, 1938, and added the epitaph, “I am Providence.”
Those words came from a letter Lovecraft wrote to his Aunt Lillian, eventually published in 2000 in Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters, edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz. Lovecraft wrote, “I will be dogmatic only to the extent of saying that it is New England I must have — in some form or other. Providence is part of me — I am Providence…”
One might have suspected that Howard Phillips Lovecraft was destined for oblivion. As a child, frequent psychosomatic illnesses kept him from school. He learned to recite poetry at the age of two and read the Arabian Nights (scarcely a children’s book) by the time he was five, so he acquired his view of the world — and vocabulary — from books, not from people.
Despite his inexperience with the world, “The Beast in the Cave,” his first fiction, appeared in 1905, when he was 15. Twelve years later, he still lived with his mother, which allowed him to write his gloomy tales in peace. Inspired by the fantasies of Lord Dunsany, Lovecraft wrote his first novel, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, in 1926. He was 36. Eleven years later, he’d be dead. Except for a brief sojourn in New York City, he spent his entire life in Providence.
Most of his fiction appeared in pulp magazines like Weird Tales and went uncollected into book form until after his death. Despite that, he is considered the 20th-century Poe, a pioneer in combining elements of horror and science fiction.
When Mason and I visited Swan Point Cemetery on a lovely April day, offerings piled on Lovecraft’s granite block. In addition to pennies lined carefully along the top of the gravestone, someone had left white pebbles. A bouquet of iris and ferns crumbled in the grass.
The air in Swan Point was vibrant with birdsong, fragrant from the exquisite elderly fruit trees laden with blossoms. The cemetery gave the sensation that life continues, despite darkness, despair, and death.
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