New England cemeteries are a unique breed. They're incredibly old with headstones that have what many consider to be ghoulish art: skulls and figures of death. While I’m not intrigued by the macabre, I do like the peaceful nature of cemeteries. So visiting some of the local cemeteries has been an interesting, educational experience. These sites have become places for me to wander and appreciate the artwork and history.
Before I proceed, some clarification is in order. In New England one will often see the phrase “cemetery” and “burying ground” attached to these places of final rest. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a burying ground as “an area of land where dead people have been buried.” The definition of a cemetery is “a burial ground.” As you can see, they’re interchangeable. For this blog post I’ll use the term for each place based on what they’re commonly referred to.
Below I’ve included four of my favorite cemeteries. They’re worthwhile for various reasons: the artwork of the headstones, the history, the individuals buried there, and other unique features. Many visitors will know the three burying grounds on The Freedom Trail: Copp’s Hill, Granary, and King’s Chapel. But I wanted to highlight a few others located throughout the city. Each are within either easy walking distance or accessible via public transportation. But let’s start with the biggest and most popular one first.
Granary Burying Ground
It surprises many people to learn that the historic burying grounds in Boston aren’t related to a church. In fact, they’re operated and maintained by Boston’s Parks and Recreation Department. The Granary is a closed burying ground in the sense that no more bodies are being added. Yet, it’s quite open to visitors. Since it is a public place, you can access it almost all year around from sunrise to sunset, although sometimes they close a bit early.
The Granary is the most well-known burying ground in Boston because of the folks whose bodies reside here. You have a lot of heavy hitters from the American Revolution: John Hancock, Paul Revere, James Otis, and Sam Adams. Also, there are the five victims of the Boston Massacre. Too, there are the parents of Benjamin Franklin, who strangely have the largest memorial in the grounds. But there are also lesser-known, but still important figures from our history. This includes Peter Faneuil; whose namesake is Boston's Faneuil Hall. Some early governors of Massachusetts are also buried here.
There are a couple of people who have fascinating stories. The body of Elisha Brown is here. He and other residents of the Manufactory House (which was right across the street from the Granary Burying Ground) held off British troops during a three-week siege in 1768. Also here is Benjamin Woodbridge, a nineteen-year-old who was the victim of the first duel fought in Boston in 1728.
Amongst the headstones one will also find great examples of colonial art. (I could write an entire post about the symbolism, but check out this page to get an understanding of what those skulls with wings mean.) Beyond the popular death’s head, there are a few other pieces of gravestone art. Jabez Smith was a marine who fought in the Revolutionary War. His headstone features a wonderful sailing ship with the words “Anchored in the haven of rest.”
Ruth Carter’s grave (located near Smith’s) showcases intricate stonecutting. It has two skeletons with one that is turning around. I also like Elizabeth Ireland’s headstone, which shows the Grim Reaper lounging.
What makes a lot of the art in these old burying grounds even more interesting is that the stonecutters remain anonymous. Early Bostonians were rather conservative folks; art was not important to them. You wouldn’t find art in their churches or their homes. But headstones were one place where an artistic soul could shine. Here he (it was a man’s realm in Colonial Boston) could showcase not only what we perceive to be the macabre, but also flowers, plants, and fruits.
If you can only see one burying ground or cemetery in Boston, I recommend this one.
Central Burying Ground
The Central Burying Ground is one of the four burying grounds in the heart of the city that is open to the public. Yet, because it’s not on The Freedom Trail, it’s the least visited. That said, there are some cool things here that make it worth checking out.
One reason this burying ground has few visitors is that it’s kind of hidden, tucked away on the corner of the Boston Common. Also, there aren’t many famous people buried here. I’d go so far to say there’s only one worth mentioning: Gilbert Stuart. While the name may not ring a bell, you know his work. Stuart painted the portrait of George Washington found on the one-dollar bill. In fact, he painted portraits of the first six US presidents. He's considered to be one of the foremost portrait painters in early American history.
So if there aren’t many famous people residing in this location, who are the folks buried here? There are some Catholics and immigrants. There are some British and American soldiers from the American Revolution. But when the Central Burying Ground opened in 1756, it was on the outskirts of the settled part of Boston. No one wanted their loved ones—even in death—so far away from where they lived.
In 1836 an extension of Boylston Street occurred. This street abuts against the burying ground. This extension removed a swath of the graves. Their reinterment was in the same burying ground in a unique feature called “The Dell.” It’s actually a free-standing grave with crypts for various family members behind each steel door.
The final unique piece of this burying ground is a big headstone under which are the remains of up to 1000 British soldiers. They died in Boston during the 1770s before the army retreated from the city. Their discovery in 1895 was due to the construction of Boston’s subway. Once discovered, they had a reburial in the burying ground.
Temple Ohabei Shalom Cemetery
While I knew of Jewish portions of private cemeteries, I never visited a cemetery that is exclusively dedicated to those of the Jewish faith. Temple Ohabei Shalom Cemetery (TOSC) is the oldest Jewish cemetery in Massachusetts, founded in 1844. It’s still active, so one can see how headstones have changed in style from the nineteenth-century to today.
What makes a visit to TOSC unique is that for someone who isn’t Jewish, it was interesting to see the ways in which Jews memorialize their dead. I’ve never seen certain symbols in non-Jewish cemeteries that one finds here. There is also a lot of Hebrew on the headstones. Some of the pictures I've included showcase those unique differences.
Graves sit very close together over the two acres of land. The grounds aren’t elaborately sculpted and there aren’t any famous people buried here. But that’s not why I recommend this cemetery. For many people, they’ve only ever grown up around Christian graveyards and its iconography. Or they’ve seen a Jewish section of a cemetery. But to see an entire cemetery dedicated to Jews is a much different take to what many Americans know.
Even though TOSC is in East Boston, it’s not hard to get to. Take the blue line on the MBTA to the Wood Island stop and then it’s about half a mile walk from there. Note that it’s closed on Saturdays and Jewish holidays.
Forest Hills Cemetery
Forest Hills Cemetery was one of the first cemeteries I explored in Boston, because I lived two blocks from it. It’s private, non-religious, and still active. It traces its roots to the garden cemetery movement of the 19th century. (In fact, Forest Hills’ sister cemetery, Mount Auburn, located in Cambridge, is the first garden cemetery in the US and worth a visit.)
Garden cemeteries are more in line with what people today picture as a cemetery. Graves spaced further apart, flowers and plants, and gone are the death’s heads and more macabre nature of the headstone art.
That said, Forest Hills has some great art that stands alone from the graves. Upon entering the main entrance, one sees Daniel Chester French’s bronze sculpture, Death and the Sculptor. Throughout the 275 acres there are other sculptures, many more of the modern variety. There are also monuments to firefighters and soldiers.
Many famous individuals find their final resting place here. This includes poet e. e. cummings (whose name is spelled out and in all capital letters on his grave), abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, playwright Eugene O’Neill, and poet Anne Sexton. Many more lesser-known, yet interesting folks are also at rest at Forest Hills. There is a map of the grounds one can pick up upon entering that shows who many of these individuals are, as well as where various artwork is at.
One of the enjoyable facets about Forest Hills is how much it acts like a park. There are beautiful flowers and trees. On my visits I’ve seen people jogging, riding their bikes, reading, having a picnic, walking their dog, and even doing yoga. The pond at the center of Forest Hills makes for a nice locale and there are benches and chairs spaced throughout.
Although Forest Hills isn’t in downtown Boston, it’s easy to get to on public transit. Take the Orange Line on the MBTA to the end at Forest Hills. Head up Tower Street to enter through the side entrance. (It’s much quicker than walking to the front). The cemetery is generally open sunrise to sunset, so hours change throughout the year.
And when visiting Boston, don’t forget to book a crime tour of the North End with us!