A ‘Grave’ Situation in Boston

Death was all around me  in Boston as I stumbled along Tremont St.’s narrow red strip. No one died of course, and it wasn’t because I was barely functioning on one hour’s sleep. It was hundreds of souls who have passed on decades before me, lying beneath my feet.

My friends and I began our short adventure in Boston Common, as recommended by the app, Triposo (which I highly recommend as a free, history guide), reading stories aloud as we walked. Although we followed as long as our hands could keep warm – which wasn’t for long – the places which resonated with me most were Boston’s two oldest cemeteries. These grounds hold the remains of the most infamous figures of the city’s early history, from Revolutionaries to cod carvers (see King’s Chapel). In this post, I will give a brief overview of two cemeteries in particular, according to the historical text panels as my main source of information. Here they are:

Granary Burying Grounds

Granary Burying Grounds from entrance. The Franklin monument is in the centre left. Photo taken by me.

Within this burying grounds as old as 1608 lies some of the most notable names of the American Revolution. Some of these names include the Patriot Paul Revere, famous for his 1775 midnight ride to alert the colonial militia about British troops in Lexington and Concord. In addition to Revere, the victims of the Boston Massacre of 1770 are buried here in Granary. The most notable structure in the cemetery is a big cenotaph in the middle , dedicated to Benjamin Franklin’s parents, Josiah and his wife, including three of her seven children (as many infants usually didn’t survive their first years in colonial times). Other notable names are Nicholas Gardner, who fought at died in the Revolution in 1782, and Boston’s first mayor, John Phillips.

King’s Chapel Burying Grounds

Most of King’s Chapel. Photo taken by me.

Despite Granary being our first stop, King’s Chapel is in fact Boston’s oldest cemetery (1630) with about 600 gravestones, which was once nestled outside of a Puritan settlement. The men and women buried in this cemetery were mostly English-born immigrants who came to Boston seeking religious and economic freedom. One of the most famous names here is John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony (d.1649). However, perhaps the most interesting of them all was a carver named John Welch, the man behind one of America’s most quirky state symbols – the “sacred cod.” Welch fashioned this curious embodiment of Boston’s maritime economic legacy, which hung in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. The first cod hung at the old state house, while the second was destroyed in a fire in 1747, and it is believed Welch’s carving from 1784 of 5 feet is the current version.

The idea of being able to walk where Boston’s most prominent Revolutionary figures now lie evokes a feeling of closeness and visual representation in one’s mind of colonial Bostonian society. However, I also took the time to read the smaller stones, and learn the names of the more everyday people who once made this city – once Puritan village – their home. Furthermore, the cemeteries’ text panels allowed me to further engage with my surroundings and ask more questions. For example, the gravestones in Granary are the only burial records of mostly ancient Bostonian women and children. What could this tell us about gender and family dynamics in colonial Boston and their relationship to genealogy? In King’s Chapel, a felt maker named John Tapping and his wife Mary who is believed to have been Boston’s first female bookseller. What factors led her to pursue such an endeavour under what circumstances could lead us towards unraveling new stories.

Speaking of stories, it is not surprising that lovers of ghost stories may not be disappointed here. Although we didn’t have the time to do one, there are some interesting ghost tours across the city. The most promising would be the Ghosts and Gravestones which takes you to both Granary and King’s Chapel including several more that I never visited. However, ghost tour or not, I would argue that best places to find out more about beginnings is where it all ended.

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