Walking around Boston one can’t help but notice the historical evidence of age here and there in the form of an old building, church, plaque erected to remind us that “something happened here…” and other reminders of our country’s meek beginnings. I don’t think, however, you can find a more concentrated source of history than an old burial ground or cemetery.
A Place of History
Boston has several such places that are a permanent reminder of those who lived before us. One of my favorites is the Granary Burial Ground next to the Park Street Church, a place of worship since 1809 located at the northeast corner of the Boston Commons. The Granary was established as a eternal lodging for the forefathers of our country way back in 1660 (yet is only the third-oldest burial site in Boston, the oldest being King’s Chapel Burying Ground – 1630), serving as a resting place for some of the early Bostonians. Records indicate about 5,000 residents were crowded into the small cemetery with confusion as to exactly who is buried and where, complicated by the existence of only approx. 2,345 gravestones and tombs. The confusion over who and where is compounded by the old habit of reusing graves when new residents were buried, and several rearrangements of the tombstones both for nineteenth-century aesthetics and to accommodate modern lawnmowers!
In spite of its dubious records, the Granary does boast some famous verified residents: the victims of the Boston Massacre of 1770, Ben Franklin’s parents (Ben, although born in Boston, was buried in Philadelphia), merchant Peter Faneuil, patriot James Otis who coined the phrase, “Taxation without representation is tyranny,” Paul Revere, three signers of the Declaration of Independence (John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and Robert Treat Paine) among other early Boston notables. And for a measure of whimsy, the Granary is also purported to be the eternal resting place for Mother Goose…or at least one Elizabeth (Ver)goose whom some believe was the prolific storyteller. Still others were initially buried at the Granary then later moved to family plots elsewhere, adding to the overall confusion. Regardless, a trip to the Granary Burial Ground is a walk through history.
A Place of Eeriness
Cemeteries have always held a fascination for me, largely from the obvious tangible connection to man’s past, which explains why I enjoy the historical cemeteries but avoid the newer ones. There is certainly a measure of creepiness to any burial ground, but when the gravestones and above-ground crypts reach a certain age, the historical aspects override the eeriness, at least for me. My trips to nearby Galveston cemeteries never include the newer ones but instead focus on those whose monuments show a definite age. I’ve yet to visit the infamous New Orleans cemeteries where all are buried aboveground because of potential flooding, but look forward to doing some historical grave lurking when I go there next.
In the case of the Granary Burial Grounds in Boston though, an extra aspect of the creepies pervades the place. As you can see in these photos, the burial ground is closed in on three sides by a variety of modernish buildings housing offices, retail, and even residences. I can’t truly appreciate the challenges of working in an office a few feet away from so many graves, or sitting in an easy chair reading the Boston Globe yet being able to glance out the window and see the curving rows of tombstones for the long-dead residents of an older Boston. I would hope the historical overtones of the grounds would provide some comfort at least, but at much as I enjoy old burial sites I’d hate to live next to one.
When I visited the Granary 13 years ago the sun was shining and the day a nice August one, yet walking in the Granary I felt a cooler air and the stillness that comes with any burial ground. Since the site is closely overshadowed on three sides by tall buildings, it’s usually shaded, adding to the other-wordly sense already strongly in place. Back then I was the only trespasser on the grounds for a brief time. This time there were a lot of tourists roaming and reading the headstones as well as a few furry residents who didn’t seem to mind scampering over what lies underneath or sitting atop a slate slab or two grabbing a bite to eat.
A long time ago I would occasionally take a few rubbings of particularly interesting funerary art whenever I’d visit a graveyard, but I stopped out of respect for the dearly depart and because rubbings are now considered destructive. I walk the worn paths between headstones I consider myself a guest and one who wishes to tread lightly while taking only photos and memories. At some point one might argue that aged tombstones become historical artifacts and thus become more public, but regardless of the age, the markers still represent our fascination with recording our time on Earth, especially in the context of history that is Boston’s.
Whenever I visit Boston I recognize that my attraction lies in the sense of America’s deeper roots and places of significant history that forever reside in the memory of the city’s streets and alleys. Back home in Houston a place two hundred years old is considered a relic; in Boston I trod over graves three hundred years old and more. I walk into buildings nearly as old as the graves, structures in use when our young country stood up and denied King George another colonial outpost. And I walk among a people who may very well be direct descendants of those who made our country free. All these connections to history intoxicate me and are what draws me to New England and Boston in particular. Although I do not know whether my own ancestors walked the dirt roads of Boston proper or not, I feel as though they must have for I sense I’m home whenever Boston is under my feet.