26 June 2010

Visit the three oldest cemeteries in Boston

A great example of a death's head from 
"Mrs / Elizabeth Peck / Wife of Mr Moses / 
Peck Died August / The 7th 1757 /In the 39th
Year / Of Her Age" at Granary burying ground. 
PHOTO by Robin Mason.

Rumor has it that ghosts roam the Freedom Trail, which stops at the three oldest burial grounds in Boston. Follow the path and you’ll find plenty of skeletons, caskets, and death’s headsat least carved on the gravestonesand maybe you’ll encounter a spirit or two.

Meet the Grim Reaper

Dating from 1630, King’s Chapel Burying Ground is the oldest cemetery in Boston. More than 1,000 people were buried here, although only 600 gravestones still exist. Here, you’ll see one of the most popular mortuary icons, the death’s head with wings, such as the one carved on top of Samuel Hood’s marker (died 1733). Although we associate it more with pirates, the skull and crossbones is another frequent symbol, such as the one on Sarah Todd’s gravestone (died 1777). And don't miss the elaborate memorial for Joseph Tapping, who died at age 23 in 1678; it features an hourglass, a death’s head, the Grim Reaper, and a skeleton snuffing out a candle.

In contrast to these representations of mortality, look for Bartholomew Gedney’s headstone near the entrance gate. His elaborately carved marker is of a knight’s helmet surrounded with heraldic symbols. Also, left of the entrance you’ll find a tabletop tomb for 11 members of the Winthrop family, including John Winthrop (1588-1649), the first governor of Massachusetts. The plaque includes a heraldic shield on top, though the stone probably dates from 1920 when the last Winthrop was entombed.

Revolutionary Endings

Since 1660, more than 5,000 people have been buried at Granary Burying Ground, though less than half are marked by gravestones. That’s partly because early Boston residents carted off headstones for their own building projects, including the one marking John Hancock’s grave. Today, there’s an obelisk for this famous signer of the Declaration of Independence, near the side of the Park Street Church. You’ll also find other revolutionaries, such as Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, buried here.

On the path to the right of Benjamin Franklin's family obelisk in the center of the cemetery, you’ll find another much visited stone. Mary Goose, wife of Isaac, died in 1690 at age 42 after having 10 children. Although Mary’s headstone is frequently photographed, the name Mother Goose is usually given to Isaac’s second wife, Elizabeth Foster (1665-1758), who had six children. Both women deserve the moniker, even though the term “Mother Goose stories” was used in France before both their births.

Ministering to Witches

Located in the North End, Copp’s Hill Burying Ground has a commanding view of Boston Harbor and the U.S.S. Constitution (Old Ironsides) in the Charlestown Navy shipyard. Since 1659, more than 10,000 people have been buried here, including close to 1,000 African-Americans. Near the Charter Street gate, you'll find the brick vault for three generations of Puritan ministers: Increase, Cotton, and Samuel Mather. Both Increase Mather (1639-1723) and his son Cotton Mather (1663-1728) were involved in the 17th-century witchcraft hysteria.

At the bottom of the hill, you’ll see a granite pillar marking the grave of Prince Hall (1748-1807), a black Revolutionary soldier and anti-slavery activist. Another activist who died in 1769, Daniel Malcolm’s grave apparently struck the ire of the Red Coats. His epitaph reads: “a true son of Liberty/a friend of the Publick/an enemy to oppression/and one of the foremost/in opposing the Revenue Acts/on America.” It’s a good thing Malcolm is buried in a “stone grave 10 feet deep” because his marker was used for target practice, with a bull’s eye on the carved skull.

Visiting Hours

Maintained by the city of Boston, these three burying grounds are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Gravestone rubbings are not allowed. For more information, including a list of burials, visit the Historic Burial Grounds Initiative web site.

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