Monday, October 29, 2018

History and Halloween: Ancient Graveyards and Burial Grounds

Graveyards take on an especially spooky feel during the Halloween season, particularly those with ancient stories to tell. Almost four hundred years have passed since the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, an event that will be commemorated by Plymouth 400 throughout 2020, and many of the original graveyards from the early days of Massachusetts Bay Colony still exist throughout the commonwealth.

The oldest maintained cemetery in America is located in Duxbury, Massachusetts. Named for its most famous resident, Myles Standish Burial Ground has existed since about 1638. Several other individuals who arrived on the Mayflower are also buried there, including John Alden and his son Captain Jonathan Alden, who died in 1697 and whose gravestone is the oldest extant carved gravestone in the cemetery. The burial ground was abandoned in the late 1700s, but following the publication of The Courtship of Miles Standish by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1858, New England experienced a revival of interest in their colonial roots. In the late 1800s, the Duxbury Rural Society cleaned up the overgrown burial ground and worked to identify Standish’s remains. Today, he rests under a large memorial marked with four cannon, and other historical figures have been identified and labeled with 20th century markers.

A vintage postcard featuring the grave of Myles Standish (Source)

But one doesn’t have to leave the city to visit a colonial graveyard. Bostonians and tourists alike can easily visit three historic burial grounds adjacent to the Freedom Trail. The King Chapel Burying Ground is the oldest cemetery in the city and is the final resting place for Mary Chilton, another Mayflower passenger and the first European woman to step foot in Massachusetts.  John Winthrop, one of the founders of Boston, is also interred there. The Granary Burying Ground is notable for including many figures involved in the American Revolution, including Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, Robert Treat Paine, and James Otis, Jr., as well as the victims of the Boston Massacre.  Lastly, Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in the North End is another colonial cemetery notable for the gravesite of Prince Hall, an African-American abolitionist who founded the Black Freemasonry branch within North American Freemasonry. Another grave is special not only for its resident: the gravestone of Daniel Malcolm, successful merchant and smuggler who resisted British authority, still bears the bullet marks of British sharp shooters who used the stone for practice.

Daniel Malcolm’s gravestone at Copp’s Burying Ground,
 courtesy of  Curious Old Gravestones in and about Boston (1924)

With 17th and 18th century gravesites throughout the Commonwealth, often the graves themselves are interesting whether or not they mark the burial site of a notable historical person. The Puritans were concerned with piety and morality and disliked anything considered extravagant, and their graves reflect these ideas. Visit a colonial gravesite and note the common symbols that adorn gravestones: a winged face represents the soul of the deceased while a winged skull shows the flight of the soul from the mortal body; a sheaf of wheat represents an eternal harvest, and a rising sun symbolizes renewed life.

Colonial Williamsburg offers a helpful glossary of symbols and terms related to ancient cemeteries available on their website that will be helpful as you explore local cemeteries and burial grounds and discover your town’s local history this Halloween. If visiting gravesites during the spookiest time of the year is not your cup of tea, many of these symbols and more can be seen on gravestones featured in our photo collection from Curious Old Gravestones in and about Boston (1924), available on our Flickr page and accessible safely from home.

The impressively detailed gravestone of John Foster,
the first printer in Boston, courtesy of
Curious Old Gravestones in and about Boston (1924)


Alexandra Bernson
Reference staff