Beyond the Gates: A Cemetery Explorer’s Guide is a blog hosted by The Friends of Mount Auburn Cemetery written and researched by Corinne Elicone and Zoë G. Burnett. Our intention for this blog is to rediscover the out of the way and obscure graveyards that surround us, as well as to uncover new histories among the more well-trod grounds of prominent burial places. With this blog as a guide, visitors can experience cemeteries in a new way. As important landmarks of cultural heritage, our hope is that interest in these quiet places will help to preserve and educate us about our past and, ultimately, everyone’s shared future.
BURIAL HILL | PLYMOUTH, MA (1622)
COLE’S HILL & BURIAL HILL
It’s 1620, and a group of religious English radicals arrive on the shores of the New World in a small, smelly, wooden floating world. Or at least, it’s new to them. Having first docked across the bay in what would be known as Provincetown, now the LGBTQ+ capital of New England, these pilgrims of the Mayflower had finally arrived to create their own community as was foreseen and blessed by God. Or at least, according to them. The actual site of their landing in the harbor isn’t known for sure, and the sheltered monument commemorating the event was placed there 121 years later. Of the 102 passengers, only forty-five survived the first winter in their newly-christened Plymouth colony. The bodies were buried across the street from where Plymouth Rock stands in Cole’s Hill, now Pilgrim Memorial State Park, a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Burials may have continued until 1637, approximately when Burial Hill was established on higher ground. The steep geography of Cole’s Hill made it untenable as a burial site; by 1735, erosion and weather exposed many graves, and their bones were lost to the sea. More grave sites would be discovered throughout the years as Plymouth developed into a bustling, modern town. Most of these remains were eventually housed in a monumental granite sarcophagus on Cole’s Hill, after some were interred in Burial Hill, disinterred to be placed in a (now-demolished) monument that once housed Plymouth Rock, then interred again, in a rather macabre game of musical tombs. Others were just handed over to existing relatives in the late nineteenth century, and their final resting places require more research.
Burial Hill is perhaps not what those arriving in Plymouth from other parts of the world may expect when visiting one of the first major European settlements in North America. Set overlooking Plymouth harbor and its downtown area, Burial Hill is neither a common graveyard nor a grand garden cemetery. It’s not even hallowed ground. Plymouth’s first fort and meetinghouse were constructed atop the highest elevation point, and many of the colony’s settlers who survived are buried around the meetinghouse’s site, the brick fragments of the structure still emerge.
As facing east towards Jerusalem wasn’t required in a Puritan graveyard, the markers point in every direction, creating haphazard clusters of history containing many names of mythic proportion in the American ethos. William Bradford (1590 – 1657), one of the colony’s first governors and author of Of Plymouth Plantation (c. 1630 – 1651), is buried beneath a modest granite obelisk; Mary Allerton Cushman (1616 – 1699), the last surviving Mayflower passenger, lies somewhere beneath another, massive obelisk erected by her descendants. The illustrious Warrens of Revolutionary War fame share the earth with the lesser known but no less dramatic Dr. Francis LeBaron (1668 – 1704) and his descendants. LeBaron, a French captive who became one of Plymouth’s first practicing surgeons, later died in a knife fight at a local alehouse.
In addition to the visible stones that dot the landscape of Burial Hill there are also unmarked mass graves located in the rear of the cemetery, toward which many other stones have slid due to erosion. There is some debate as to whether or not these pits contain remains of victims related to the General Arnold shipwreck tragedy of 1778.
It is known that Captain James Magee (1750 – 1801), commander of the ship, is not interred directly beneath the monument that bears his name. Having not perished with his crew, Magee is most likely buried in Roxbury, where he died at the age of 51. There is currently an initiative underway to provide a memorial for the nameless resting therein. Generations of Plymouth residents populate Burial Hill, with an estimated two thousand registered souls buried in its depths up until 1957.
Many of us who are used to the stark, cramped, uncouth style of old New England burial grounds will find an interesting foil in Burial Hill. Surely enough, the repeated motifs are there along with families of stones obviously carved by the same person and perhaps selected by the customer out of a line-up of options. However, within these predictable boundaries, there is a creative and colorful undercurrent present throughout Burial Hill that provides evidence of a sentimentality surrounding death that has long since been lost on our culture. There is perhaps no finer example of this than Burial Hill’s large and diverse collection of portrait stones.
Portrait Stones rose in popularity during the 18th century, and you can even find a few of them in Mount Auburn: Margaret Fuller’s grave is one of them. While easily overlooked pieces of ephemera, portrait stones offer a touching connection to the unfamiliar populations of a distant past. People who perhaps had no other physical representation of their appearances throughout their lives, may have a rudimentary portrait of themselves above their eternal resting place. The word “may” is used in the last sentence because, while occasionally portrait stones had some resemblance to the physical appearance of the subject, much of the time they did not. Instead, portrait stones were created to represent a vague idea of the individual buried. Were they a woman or a man? Adult or child? Answering these questions with a portrait gives us deeper insight into the identities of the deceased than an angel with wings or a skull and crossbones would, however, to call it a portrait in the artistic sense of the word would be an overstatement on the specificity that portrait stones offer. It is common to see portrait stones throughout New England seemingly depicting the same exact person with the same facial structure, same hair, same heart locket. This phenomenon can be explained by the demand and convenience of consistency among the stone-carvers of early New England.
BLACK & INDIGENOUS BURIALS
Up until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s it was common, especially in the southern United States to encounter cemeteries segregated by race and/or religion. Even now, consecrated ground can be exclusive to the specific congregation or religious denomination that oversees it. As mentioned above, Burial Hill in Plymouth is not consecrated by any one religion, and as an area of land, served more of a practical purpose as a place to cordon off the dead, than a statement on the hallowedness and sanctity of the ground itself. Early colonial settlers did not always have the luxury of choosing a time and a place when it came to handling the bodies of their community members. All of this is to say that sometimes racial animosity and structural racism did not prohibit the burial of Black or Indigenous people into majority-white Christian burial grounds.
According to Cheryle Caputo of Friends of Burial Hill they know for certain that the Indigenous populations in and around Plymouth were sometimes buried in Burial Hill by white settlers. However, there is no record of any monument or location where they were buried. Burial Hill itself is located on Pauquunaukit (Wampanoag) Land, as is the rest of Plymouth. Caputo also notes that there are monuments for only two known Black people in Burial Hill. Likely, there are far more, but their locations and identities are lost to history.
One of the two known Black people buried in Burial Hill is Charles B. Allen, a veteran of the Civil War and a member of the 5th Massachusetts Colored Volunteer Cavalry, which was the only Massachusetts cavalry regiment composed entirely of Black men. The regiment had early success in its efforts stationed around Washington D.C. sustaining no losses until June of 1864, where they ran into confederate troops at Baylor’s Farm on their way to Petersburg, Virginia. In the fight, three men were killed and nineteen officers and other men were injured. Eventually, the Massachusetts 5th was able to push the confederate soldiers to retreat. Allen survived the war and served in the regiment from 1863 to 1865 with distinction.
The second known Black person buried in Burial Hill is located right across the path from Charles Allen. Her tombstone reads: “In memory of Nancy Williams a faithful (African) servant in the family of Rev. F. Freeman. Died Nov. 24 1831 Aged 25 years.” In our (very) cursory searches we have not been able to find any information on Williams’ life, but with poignancy, we do note her date of death is exactly 2 months after the consecration of Mount Auburn Cemetery on September 24th 1831.
A special thanks to Cheryle Caputo, founder of Gravestone Conservation Services, Inc. and President of Friends of Burial Hill, who kindly gave us a guided tour of the graveyard on a chilly Autumn afternoon. GCSI and FoBH offer many cemetery preservation services, including but not limited to grave marker cleaning, repair, and resetting. We were delighted to hear about their subterranean findings using GPR (Ground Penetrating Radar), even more so to see the stunning transformations of Burial Hill’s ancient stones performed by Cheryle and other trained volunteers since 2010. Their Gravestone Surveys are particularly fascinating reading. We’re excited to participate in their next round of workshops, and look forward to future collaborations!
If you are a representative of a cemetery or a cemetery historian and would like to see your cemetery featured in this blog please email Corinne Elicone at firstname.lastname@example.org
Introducing “Beyond the Gates: A Cemetery Explorer’s Guide” Blog Series by Corinne Elicone and Zoë G. Burnett
Beyond the Gates: A Cemetery Explorer’s Guide is a blog hosted by The Friends of Mount Auburn Cemetery written and researched by Corinne Elicone and Zoë G. Burnett. Inspired by Andrew Kull’s New England Cemeteries; a Collector’s Guide, our intention for this blog is to rediscover the out of the way and obscure graveyards that surround us, as well as to uncover new histories among the more well-trod grounds of prominent burial places. We began during a pandemic, when the need to social distance while experiencing the outdoors was (and still is) crucial. With this blog as a guide, visitors can experience cemeteries in a new way, perhaps learning something new about the roadside bone garden in their hometown or planning a roadtrip to other sites in the area. As important landmarks of cultural heritage, our hope is that interest in these quiet places will help to preserve and educate us about our past and, ultimately, everyone’s shared future.
NEW ENGLAND CEMETERIES – A PRIMER
Mount Auburn, as old and foundational as it appears to us today, was actually formed in contrast to an even older era of burial grounds. Colonial Burial Grounds of the 17th and 18th centuries, similarly to Mount Auburn, had their own style, their own missions, and their own problems. When European settlers first landed in the New World in the early 1600s burial grounds were not sentimental places. In fact, the Pilgrims took little care to even mark the graves of the deceased, and it wasn’t until the 1650s that stone markers for graves would become the norm. Death in the time where Calvinism was the dominant religious belief amongst European settlers was a rather hopeless situation. The fate of your soul in the afterlife had already been pre-determined at birth. There was nothing that you or your family could do to change your fate, including having proper christian burial services and erecting a monument to your memory. It was simply superfluous. But yet, stone monuments did become common sights in New England Burial Grounds from the 1650’s until today.
EVOLUTION OF GRAVESTONE ICONOGRAPHY
In the later half of the 1600’s through the 1700’s Memento Mori would reign supreme in New England burial grounds pocked with slate tombstones. In Boston, The Granary and King’s Chapel burying grounds became gruesome and terrifying sights as they were filled to the brim with more and more dead New Englanders. In the early 1800s, concerned with the growing hazard of fetid “miasmas” wafting through the air from these sites of mass death and suffering, a group of amateur horticulturalists desperately sought a way out of this grim and detached tradition. Their proposed solution would become the meticulously manicured, delicate, and sentimental garden cemetery named Mount Auburn – placed deliberately away from the claustrophobia of industrializing Boston in the natural rolling farmlands of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
To understand Mount Auburn Cemetery is to understand what came before it. To interpret the landscape as a deliberate response to the aching so many felt for collective mourning, remembrance, and preservation of legacy, not only as a rapidly developing new nation, but also as people rapidly developing medical science, and philosophical identities where death and grief did not have to be relegated to pits of mass despair.
We hope throughout this series you learn about the burial grounds that inspired Mount Auburn and even (in some cases) the burial grounds that were inspired by it.
- Beyond the Gates: A Cemetery Explorer’s Guide to Rumney Marsh Burial Ground Revere, MALittle precious details appear to be the reward of curious cemetery sleuths meandering the grounds at Rumney Marsh: tiny skulls, little imps, mysterious circles, a broken stem of a flower.
- Beyond the Gates: A Cemetery Explorer’s Guide to the Old Burial Grounds Ashby, MAPeppered with grumpy cherubim tympana, the cemetery also boasts many architecturally impressive urn motifs.
- Beyond the Gates: A Cemetery Explorer’s Guide to the Shaker Cemetery Harvard, MAIn 1791 the eccentric Harvard community of Shakers started laying plans for a place to bury their dead.
- Beyond the Gates: A Cemetery Explorer’s Guide to Old Burying Ground & Hillside Cemetery Townsend, MAIt was here, in Townsend that I first became acquainted with the wealth of funerary art hosted by our little town, dating from at least the 1730s to the early nineteenth century
- Beyond the Gates: A Cemetery Explorer’s Guide to Burial Hill Plymouth, MAIt’s 1620, and a group of religious English radicals arrive on the shores of the New World in a small, smelly, wooden floating world. Or at least, it’s new to them. Immediately, they will need a place to bury their dead.
Check this page every so often for new entries!
A NOTE ON CEMETERY ETIQUETTE
Mount Auburn as the landmark and organization it is, has very clear expectations of the behavior of its visitors. There are no dogs allowed in the cemetery, no bike riding or picnicking, no climbing the trees, no touching the monuments – the list goes on. This is to say that some of the burial grounds we will explore in this series do not have clear guidelines for you and your friends and family to adhere to. However, this does not mean that all activities should be fair game. Burial Grounds, Cemeteries (ancient or new) are places of memory and emotion, unspeakable loss and tragedy and are, on-the-whole, fragile outdoor museums. If you decide to bring your dog to these places, please also think of where the dog will do its business, and whether that will be on someone’s grave – marked or unmarked. If you decide to bring a picnic, please carry in and carry out. If you decide to climb the trees also realize that if a branch breaks, you could not only hurt yourself, but also irrevocably damage a 400 year old stone that remains the only physical manifestation left of a person who lived and died centuries ago. This all being said, some cemeteries and burial grounds do have posted rules and guidelines. Be sure to check on their website or look around for a posted sign when you arrive.
Many of the burial grounds we plan to feature will also be in more remote, rural areas. These sites are no less precious than their more prestigious peers, and should be treated just as delicately if not more so. You might be the first person in months to visit, and often that shows. Vandalism and litter are sad but common sights, dilapidated stones even more so. If the gates of a graveyard are locked, then visiting hours are indeed over. Fence-hopping is not only dangerous for you and the stones, but is also likely to get you in trouble for trespassing if spotted. Many cemeteries prohibit the practice of stone rubbing, Mount Auburn included, and in places that are less well-kept you must use your own best judgement. Although a harmless activity when done properly on an undamaged stone, it takes only seconds for the paper to tear and get wax on the stone, or even for the stone itself to break off. Markers covered in lichen or made of flaking slate should be avoided. Photography is an easy alternative in these cases, and upon later review you may find even more details that you hadn’t initially seen. Even in the tranquility of these places, you must also be aware and vigilant of your surroundings. Bring a friend along, or at least let someone know your activities and whereabouts for the day. There are many safe, fun ways to engage with these cultural landmarks. All that’s needed is curiosity, a bit of common sense, and sometimes a strong stomach.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Corinne Elicone is the Events & Outreach Coordinator at Mount Auburn Cemetery. She curates Mount Auburn’s “death positive” programming, online video content, and historic walking tours of the grounds. She is also Mount Auburn’s first female crematory operator in their near 190 year history.
ZOË G. BURNETT
Z.G. Burnett is a writer and editor with a background in early American history and material culture. She has been published by The Attic on Eighth, Ivy-Style, and The Vintage Woman Magazine. Combining her passion for the paranormal and everything pink, Z.G. is currently working on her first personal style guide.
if you are a representative of a cemetery or a cemetery historian and would like to see your cemetery featured in this blog series please email Corinne Elicone at email@example.com
By Volunteer Docent Robin Hazard Ray
In any season of the year, the serpent-green pillar mounted on the Bridge family lot at the corner of Fir and Spruce Avenues stands out. In summer, it towers over with the pale marble headstones of its neighbors. In winter, it provides a splendid color contrast to the snow and ice on the ground. Its unusual hue ranges from a dark pine green at the top, which is shaped in imitation of an urn, to a paler sea green toward the base.
Close examination of the pillar reveals it to be made from a rather messy metamorphic stone. Swirls of green serpentinite are shot through with white veins; this handsome combination is broken into chunks that swim in a finer gray-green matrix along with half-melted blobs of pale pinkish calcite. Here and there are flakes of a black mineral, identified as magnetite. This kind of rock is called “breccia” (Italian for “broken”) or breccia-conglomerate; breccias, which may be green, yellow, gray, or multicolored, are prized in the stone trade for their rough beauty and range of colors and textures. (more…)
Architect Willard T. Sears was enlisted to design a plan to renovate the interior of the old chapel (now Bigelow Chapel) to accommodate a crematory, and “only the outer granite structure which it was deemed desirable to retain on account of its associations was preserved.
In 1899, the interior of the old chapel was renovated to accommodate the first crematory in a cemetery in Massachusetts. (The first cremation in Massachusetts – that of the well-known suffragist and social reformer, Lucy Blackwell Stone – took place in December of 1893 at a facility operated by the Massachusetts Cremation Society.) A basement was constructed and the floor was raised. Additionally, an elevator in front of the alter area was installed for lowering caskets to the retorts below. (more…)