Memento Calvaria: Boston Burial Grounds and Puritan Death Obsession

The Granary Burying GroundTwo gravestones stand on a quiet hill.

Judy Brown, the first stone reads. Wife, mother, teacher, friend. Went home to the Lord September 13, 2010. ‘He maketh me lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside still waters; He restoreth my soul.’ Above the epitaph sits a cherub, bright-eyed and gentle, reminding all passersby that the next life is a place of peaceful repose.

The stone next to it, by contrast, is a crooked slab bearing a grimacing skull. Its inscription is only two words: YOU’RE NEXT.

Here we see encapsulated the difference between modern and colonial attitudes toward death.

I won’t delve too deeply into the psychology of the colonial American death obsession. For a scholarly take on things, Jeffrey A. Hammond’s The Puritan Elegy and David E. Stannard’s The Puritan Way of Death are available on Google Books. Look there for analysis. I’m just here to show you some nifty pictures.

The Granary

Winged skull headstone

Here lies Buried y. Body of Deacon Samuel Harris, this stone tells us; and in case any illiterates miss the point, it provides us with the image of a winged skull. This is typical of the grave markers I found at Granary Burying Ground, the third oldest cemetery in Boston–a place that screams MEMENTO MORI! so loudly, it’s as if the Puritans were genuinely worried we’d forget.

Skull and crossbones headstone

Here we see Benjamin Parker who, unimpressed by the grinning angel skulls packing the rest of the grounds, decided to go full pirate.

Children's headstones

Here we see the graves of two young siblings, a depressing reminder that up to forty-percent of colonial children died before reaching adulthood.

Angel headstone

This is about as cheerful as the Granary headstones get. It’s no chubby-cheeked cherub–its eyes are empty, and there’s something weirdly plasticine about its face–but it’s at least more comforting than the skull-and-crossbones.

John Hancock's headstone

The Granary also hosts some famous graves. Here’s John Hancock’s, which soars above the rest in an overcompensating testament to the man’s anatomical inadequacies. I think I know the real reason he signed his name so big on the Declaration…

Paul Revere's headstone

Of all the markers in this cemetery, Paul Revere’s is the one I respect the most. Revere was, by all accounts, a humble man, and his headstone proves it. It’s not ornate or flashy, nor is it bedecked with the grim visage of Death. It’s just a plain stone reading REVERE’S TOMB. Good on you, Paul. If you weren’t wicked dead, I’d ask you to pound it.

King’s Burying Ground

King's Burying Ground, pit

The Granary is Boston’s third-oldest cemetery; Copp’s Hill is its second. King’s Burying Ground, adjacent to King’s Chapel on Tremont Street, is the very oldest. Founded in 1630, it was the only cemetery in the city for three decades. In appearance, it’s similar to the Granary. It does, however, have something the Granary lacks: the weird-ass iron structure pictured above.

What the hell is it? If there’s a placard explaining its presence, I couldn’t find it. My mind raced. Could it be amass grave? An especially elaborate crypt? An isolation chamber where those afflicted with yellow fever or thyphoid were dumped and forgotten? Creeping closer to the structure, I stuck my hand through the bars and aimed my camera straight down.

King's Burying Ground, pit

The resulting photograph was…inconclusive.

Someone told me later that it’s actually just a vent for the subway line that passes directly under the cemetery. But that’s lame, and stupid, and I refuse to believe it. Mass-crypt isolation chamber all the way!

Boston’s North End

North End pub

“The place for an artist to live is the North End…Generation after generation lived and felt and died there, and in days when people weren’t afraid to live and feel and die. Don’t you know there was a mill on Copp’s Hill in 1632, and that half the present streets were laid out by 1650? I can shew you houses that have stood two centuries and a half and more; houses that have witnessed what would make a modern house crumble into powder…Why, man, out of ten surviving houses built before 1700 and not moved since I’ll wager that in eight I can shew you something queer in the cellar. There’s hardly a month that you don’t read of workmen finding bricked-up arches and wells leading nowhere in this or that old place as it comes down…” – H.P. Lovecraft, “Pickman’s Model”

I went to the North End hoping for ghouls–and who knows? They might just be there. Lovecraft was full of shit about a lot of things, but he knew something about the North End. There really are a lot of obscure side-streets, hoary buildings, and queer things in cellars. There are also a lot of upscale restaurants and fancy boutiques. Unfortunately, that’s most of what I saw.

Buy, hey–at least they’ve got Paul Revere’s house!

Paul Revere's house

And a Revere statue that kind of looks like he’s going on for a cheeky bum-slap.

Paul Revere statue

Ghoulish? Maybe not. But after a morning of winged skulls, a little gentrification can be a nice change of pace.

Okay. Not really.

Next time I’ll go at night.


3 thoughts on “Memento Calvaria: Boston Burial Grounds and Puritan Death Obsession

    1. joannalesher Post author

      It’s true, I’m really into it. I don’t want to be though–I want to be cool and logical!
      If a ghost wanted me to be their medium, I’d do it, because then at least I wouldn’t feel so silly for being interested in them.

  1. Pingback: Tales from the Charnel House: A Return to King’s Burying Ground | Joanna Lesher

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