Episode 10: Cemetery Tourism: New York City and Boston
My name is Tanya Marsh and you’re listening to Death, et seq. We’ve been talking about funerals a lot on this podcast so far, and I wanted to switch gears this week and talk about one of my favorite topics – cemeteries. I love cemeteries. As my friends and family will attest, I am a semi-professional cemetery tourist. When I visit a new place, I want to check out the historic cemeteries. When I visit a place that I’ve been dozens of times, I still want to check out the cemeteries. So in a new series that I’m going to call “Cemetery Tourism,” I’ll be looking at different clusters of cemeteries that share similar characteristics or a similar history. I’m going to start the series in the Northeastern United States, in two of our earliest urban centers — New York City and Boston. Both of these cities were founded in the mid-1600s, and their early cemeteries share some common characteristics, but they also differed in important ways because of the people who founded those two cities.
American cemeteries are different from cemeteries anywhere else in the world, for a couple of reasons. In the colonial era, we were obviously heavily influenced by the law of England and the social norms that had been established there and carried here. The England of the 17th century had an established church – the Church of England. The theology of the Church of England placed great importance on burial in consecrated ground. So the law of England reflected the assumption that all people in good standing with the church and entitled to burial within the church would be buried in their local parish churchyard. There were people that weren’t in good standing, or members of other religions, so allowances had to be made for them too, but the vast majority of people were buried in the local parish churchyard owned by the Church of England. That’s just how it was set up.
But colonial America was a fairly diverse place. For example, Puritan colonists from England of course settled Massachusetts Bay Colony, while a more diverse group of English, Dutch, and German immigrants settled the former New Amsterdam, there were all kinds of ethnic groups and faiths on William Penn’s land, and the English Virginia Company established settlements focused on economics rather than religious liberty. Each of the colonies was different from the English system, but they were also each different from each other. These realities forced Americans to innovate. Massachusetts established (and still retains) a law that each town must create a burying ground for the use of residents and strangers. Unlike the English system, these are secular cemeteries, owned and managed by the government. In the densely populated cities like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, cemeteries were established downtown and despite practices designed to maximize the capacity of cemeteries, soon became overcrowded. In the Chesapeake, where the population was more widely dispersed, family burying grounds were established in addition to more traditional churchyards. Although the location of American burials differed from the uniform English precedent, other aspects of the process were the same during colonial times. Remains were wrapped in a shroud or encased in a wood coffin, then placed in the earth, a family tomb, or a mausoleum. Americans originally followed other European Christian customs—most graves were not individually memorialized and many contained the remains of more than one person.
American disposition practices shifted after the Civil War. Embalming was rarely practiced before the war. During the war, a crude method of embalming was used to stabilize the remains of wealthier men, primarily on the Union side, so they could be sent home for burial. After the Civil War, undertakers trained in embalming evolved into funeral directors. Into the twentieth century, death moved from the home to the hospital; and the ceremonies surrounding death moved from the parlor to the funeral parlor. Undertaking had once been a complementary profession for carpenters—they could build the coffin and transport the remains to the cemetery. But the Industrial Revolution moved casket production from small workshops to factories, particularly after World War II. “Modern business principles” were applied to create modern cemeteries, owned by for-profit companies in many states, larger in scale and designed to minimize the costs of maintenance. These companies benefited from laws that gave great deference to cemetery owners—traditionally families, religious organizations and municipalities—to establish their own rules and regulations. Modern cemeteries adopted rules that required concrete and/or steel vaults or grave liners that would encase the coffin and prevent the uneven terrain that follows grave collapse. These companies also adopted rules that limited graves to a single interment. The cumulative effect is a very different set of practices than existed before the Civil War. Nearly all modern graves in the United States are dedicated in perpetuity to the remains of a single individual, memorialized with a tombstone.
On today’s episode, I’ll talk about the history and development of cemeteries in New York City and Boston. If you’re interested in photographs and maps, be sure to check out the show notes at the podcast’s website – www.deathetseq.com.
The Dutch first settled New Amsterdam, then just the southern tip of Manhattan, in 1624. A detailed city map called the Castello Plan was created in 1660 – it shows virtually every structure that existed in New Amsterdam at that time. In 1664, four English frigates sailed into New Amsterdam’s harbor and demanded the surrender of New Netherlands. Articles of Capitulation were signed that September and in 1665, New Amsterdam was reincorporated under English law as New York City. The settlement was named for the Duke of York, the brother of the English King Charles II who later became King James II.
During most of the 17th century, even after the English took over, the Reformed Dutch Church was the dominant religious authority in New Amsterdam/New York. There were scattered Congregational, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches in the region, as well as Quakers, Catholics, and a few Jews. With the English in 1665, however, also came the established Church of England.
One of the first significant cemeteries in New York City was established in the 1630s on the west side of Broadway, a little north of Morris Street. It was referred to as the “Old Graveyard” In 1656, there was a petition to “divide the Old Graveyard which is wholly in ruins, into lots to be built upon, and to make another Graveyard south of the Fort.” Apparently it persisted until at least 1665, when a collection was made to repair the graveyard because it was “very open and unfenced, so that the hogs root in the same.” By 1677, however, the graveyard had been cut up into four building lots and sold at auction to the highest bidder. There is no record regarding where the graves from this “Old Graveyard” were moved, but construction on the site more than a century later uncovered “a great many skulls and other relics of humanity,” so it sounds like perhaps they weren’t moved at all. Some things in Poltergeist are real, people.
In 1662, the Dutch established a new burial ground on Broadway, on a parcel that was then located outside the city’s gates. That burial ground became a part of the Trinity churchyard when Trinity Church was established in thirty years later.
In 1693, the New York Assembly passed an act to build several Episcopal churches in New York City and “all the inhabitants were compelled to support the Church of England, whatever might be their religious opinion.” In 1696, a plot of land stretching 310 feet from Rector Street to the Dutch burial ground that had been established on Broadway in 1662 was acquired by the Episcopalians and the Charter of Trinity Church was issued on May 6, 1697. The charter declared:
“[Trinity Church] situate in and near the street called the Broadway, within our said city of New York, and the ground thereunto adjoining, enclosed and used for a cemetery or church-yard, shall be the parish church, and church-yard of the parish of Trinity Church … and the same is hereby declared to be forever separated and dedicated to the service of God, and to be applied thereunto for the use and behalf of the inhabitants … within our said city of New York, in communion with our said Protestant Church of England.”
By the time of the Revolution, the churchyard at Trinity, including the old portion that had been the Dutch burial ground, was said to contain 160,000 graves.
In 1847 a proposal to extend Albany Street to connect it with Pine Street would have disturbed the northern portion of the Trinity Church churchyard, part of the 1662 Dutch burial ground. A government report advocated against the extension:
“[The burial ground] was established by the Dutch on their first settlement… It is nearly a century older than the other sections of the yard. It was originally a valley, about thirty feet lower at its extreme depth than the present surface, and has undergone successive fillings, as the density of interments rendered it necessary, to raise the land until it reached the present surface: so that the earth now, to a depth of several feet below the original, and thence to the present time of interment, is in truth filled with human remains, or rather composed of human ashes. The bodies buried there were [approximately 30,000 to 40,000] persons of several generations, and of all ages, sects and conditions, including a large number of the officers and soldiers of the Revolutionary War, who died whilst in British captivity; and almost every old family that is or ever was in this city, has friends or connections lying there.”
In an 1892 guidebook to New York City, Moses King wrote:
“Only the established and powerful corporations of Trinity and a few other churches have been able to resist the demands of modern life and business for the ground once sacred to the dead. Hundreds of acres [in Manhattan], now covered by huge buildings or converted into public thoroughfares, were at some time burial-places; over ninety of which have been thus existed, and passed away. Of most of them even the location has been forgotten…”
Trinity Churchyard still resides on Broadway at Rector Street, in lower Manhattan, two blocks from Federal Hall, the building where George Washington was sworn in, the “room where it happened” in the very early days of the Republic, and the New York Stock Exchange. The Anglican St. Paul’s Chapel, established on Broadway between Fulton and Vesey Streets around 1766, and its surrounding churchyard still remains in the shadow of the World Trade Center. Many of the other cemeteries that once resided in lower Manhattan are relics of memory. For example:
• The Middle Dutch Church, on the east side of Nassau Street between Cedar and Liberty Streets, was surrounded by a burial ground beginning in 1729. The bodies were removed sometime after 1844. The North Dutch Church on William Street between Fulton and Ann Streets had an adjacent burial ground from 1769 to 1875.
• The French burial ground on the northeast corner of Nassau and Pine Streets, extending north to Cedar Street (1704-1830);• The Presbyterian churchyard on the north side of Wall Street opposite the end of New Street (1717-1844);
• The Old Brick Presbyterian Church graveyard on Beekman Street between Chatham and Nassau Streets (1768-1856);
• The cemetery located at Pearl, Duane, and Rose Streets which was leased from the city as early as 1765 but not used as a cemetery until after the Revolution; and
• A Lutheran Church and adjacent burial ground on south Pearl Street, a site which had become a vegetable market by 1706.A cemetery on the south side of Houston Street between Eldridge and Stanton Street was used from 1796 to 1851 as the Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery, to provide excess capacity for the crowded churchyards. The bodies were disinterred and removed around 1874.
Meanwhile, Puritan colonists from England founded Boston in 1630. Unlike the religious and ethnic diversity that could be found in New Amsterdam/New York City during this time period, the Puritan leaders of Boston punished religious dissenters. Baptist minister Obadiah Holmes was publicly whipped in 1651 and Mary Dyer was hanged in Boston Common in 1660 for repeatedly defying a law banning Quaker from being in Massachusetts Bay Colony. However, prosperity in Boston led to the development of a more diverse community that included Catholics and Quakers and other groups that were initially persecuted by the Puritans. Eventually the Puritans began to accept that they could not have a unified church and state.
Puritan burying grounds were often located adjacent to the town’s meeting house. Headstones were expensive and many of the earliest were imported from England. Most often, early burials were marked with wood markers or primitive stones, if they were marked at all. The Puritan burying ground was a utilitarian space simply used to bury the dead. Puritans did not visit graves or maintain them. They were often very disorganized. Graves were tightly clustered and gravestones were often broken or buried as the cemetery became more populated. In many cases, graves were dug deep enough to accommodate 12 or more coffins placed on top of each other to within five feet of the surface.
Recall that in the 1650s, there was a petition to remove the Old Graveyard in New Amsterdam because hogs were rooting around. In Boston, the early burying grounds were used as communal space to graze cattle.
The oldest burying ground in Boston is King’s Chapel which is not, as the name suggests, the churchyard for the adjacent King’s Chapel. What was originally simply known as the “Burying Ground” was established in 1630 and was Boston’s only cemetery for 30 years. King’s Chapel is quite small, less than half an acre. It was used as a burial ground for 200 years, but estimates are that there are only about 1,500 burials. There are only 615 gravestones and 29 tabletop tomb markers remaining. Most graves include about four burials on top of one another. Excess remains were excavated and the bones were deposited in the charnel house that can still be seen on the edge of the burying ground. A charnel house would be a very familiar idea for the English colonists because English churchyards were similarly overcrowded. When the cemetery authorities ran out of ground for fresh burials, older burials were simply dug up and the bones were placed in a communal pit in the consecrated ground, or catacombs beneath the church. If you’ve visited any European churches, you’re probably familiar with this idea.
Although the idea of the charnel house was a feature of English churchyards, King’s Chapel Burying Ground was not a churchyard. It was a community burial ground and included people of all faiths, not just Puritans. It was more like a municipal, secular cemetery than a churchyard.
In all of the Boston burying grounds, it was common to have a headstone, highly decorated with the name and sometimes the biography of the deceased, and a footstone with only the name of the deceased. Graves were placed so that the feet of the deceased faced east. This was believed to have been done so that when Christ returns, the dead can simply stand up and walk to Jerusalem.
King’s Chapel also includes 29 underground tombs which consist of a burial room made of brick and covered with earth and grass. These are marked with box structures, but the boxes are just markers, not the tombs themselves. When the tombs needed to be opened, the box was removed and the entrance dug up.
In the early 1700s, 24 tombs were built along the back fence and in 1738, 23 tombs were built along Tremont Street. These are actually underneath the present-day sidewalk of Tremont Street and their markets and entrances are inside the fence.
King’s Chapel Burying Ground also includes a curious structure that looks like the top of a tomb or pit. That’s actually a subway fresh air ventilator shaft that was constructed in 1896. Human remains in that portion of the burying ground were relocated during the construction.
It is called King’s Chapel Burying Ground today because in 1686, Governor Edmund Andros wanted to build an Anglican church in Puritan Boston. This was an unpopular idea, so no one would sell him any land. So Andros built his church in part of the existing Burying Ground, right over existing graves. As you can imagine, this didn’t make Andros any more popular with the Puritans of Boston. After King’s Chapel was consecrated, people began referring to the adjacent cemetery as King’s Chapel Burying Ground, which also couldn’t have made the Puritans very happy.
In 1660, King’s Chapel was ordered closed “for some convenient season” and new burials directed to the second burying ground. Of course tombs were installed decades later and grave burials in King’s Chapel Burying Ground weren’t outlawed until 1826, although they continued until 1896.
The second burial ground in Boston was established in 1659 when the Selectment of Boston purchased ½ acre in the northern end of town. Originally called the North Burying Place or the North Burying Ground, the parcel was expanded in 1711 and 1809. It is now known as Copp’s Hill Burying Ground and is located just down the street from the Old North Church.
The City of Boston has counted 2,230 grave markers and 228 tombs in Copp’s Hill but the exact number of burials is unknown. Estimates range from 8,000 to 10,000. This includes an estimate of over 1,000 unmarked graves of African and African American slaves.
The third burying ground in Boston is located just down Tremont Street from King’s Chapel. Also established in 1660, the Old Granary Burying Ground is the final resting place of many important figures from the Revolutionary War including Paul Revere, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and the men killed in the Boston Massacre. Benjamin Franklin’s parents are also buried here.
Granary is located on 2 acres and contains 2,345 gravestones. In 1922, it was estimated that there were 8,030 burials over its 260 year history. Originally, Granary Burying Ground was part of the Boston Common, which then extended up Tremont Street. It was originally called the South Burying Ground, then renamed the Middle Burying Ground when one was established further south. It was finally renamed Granary Burying Ground because of the 12,000 bushel grain storage building built in 1737 to provide food for the poor and called the granary. The granary was moved to Dorchester in 1809 to make room for Park Street Church.
The final colonial burial ground that I’ll mention is the Central Burying Ground, which was established in 1754 on 1.4 acres at the corner of Boston Common on Boylston Street between Charles and Tremont Streets. There are only about 487 markers remaining, but records indicate that approximately 5,000 people are buried in Central Burying Ground, including many unmarked graves of paupers from the Alms House and inmates from the House of Industry. There are some unique tombs visible in Central Burying Ground because they are surrounded by a “moat” on both sides.
The first tomb is thought to have been built in 1771. 149 tombs were built on the four sides of the burying ground and nearly half of the burials were in the tombs. But in 1836, Boylston Street was widened and 69 tombs were destroyed – the owners moved the remains either to the 60 tombs in the Dell or to the then-new Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. In 1895, the subway was being constructed along Boylston Street disturbing the remains of approximately 2,000 people. They were reburied in a mass grave in the northeast corner of Central Burying Ground. The last grave burial took placed in 1856, but tomb burials continued until the 1950s.
Until 1810, Central Burying Ground was called South Burying Ground, which is when Granary was renamed. Identifying burying grounds by their relative location to one another is clearly a bad strategy, as the constant re-naming of cemeteries in Boston demonstrates.
So I’ve described the first four cemeteries in Boston and the most famous cemetery in colonial New York – Trinity. The four colonial cemeteries in Boston were all owned by the government and non-sectarian, even though their practices resembled those of churchyards in England. New York, on the other hand, was dominated by churchyards in colonial days and the early days of the Republic. The challenges that these cemeteries faced in the beginning of the 1800s was similar in both cities, but the way that the cemeteries were changed as a result was very different. All four cemeteries I described are still in the heart of downtown Boston. In lower Manhattan, only Trinity and St. Paul’s Chapel remain.
The backlash against the colonial cemeteries was triggered by their overuse and their general lack of organization and maintenance.
In 1807, an Englishman named John Lambert visited New York. In his diary, he referred to Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel as “handsome structures” but added:
“The adjoining churchyards, which occupy a large space of ground railed in from the street and crowded with tombstones, are far from being agreeable spectacles in such a populous city. … One would think there was a scarcity of land in America to see such large pieces of ground in one of the finest streets of New York occupied by the dead. The continual view of such a crowd of white and brown tombstones and monuments as is exhibited in the Broadway must tend very much to depress the spirits.”
Some burial places had been closed and relocated in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. But the Nineteenth Century significantly accelerated that process. Overcrowded church yards and vaults (referred to as “intra-mural” burial grounds) were criticized by public health officials as “injurious to health, offensive to the senses, [and] repulsive to the taste of a refined age.”
In New York City, the precipitating event to efforts to halt intra-mural burial was the Yellow Fever epidemic that began in late July 1822 on Rector Street. Reported cases spread quickly and when the first cases on Broadway were reported, public health officials feared that if the disease was not contained, it would quickly engulf City Hall and force the government into exile. On August 7th, the Board of Health ordered that an area around Rector Street be quarantined by the erection of fences. The quarantine area had to be expanded quickly. Searching for a cause of the epidemic and an effective way to halt the spread of the disease, the Board of Health began to panic.
Prevailing medical thought of the day blamed epidemics on “miasma” and “infected air.” In early August, concerned about the cluster of cases in the area around Trinity Church, the Board of Health appointed a committee to “inquire into the expediency of regulating or preventing the interment of the dead in Trinity Church Yard during the continuance of the present epidemic.” The committee concluded that “the yard of that Church is at times, offensive to persons in its vicinity, and that, in the evening especially, the exhalations are such as perhaps are dangerous to the health of the citizens in its immediate neighborhood.” It was therefore recommended that “no grave be permitted to be opened or dug in Trinity Church Yard, until the further order of the Board of Health, under the penalty of one hundred dollars.” The proposed resolution was adopted by the Common Council on August 22nd.
Around the same time, a report from Dr. Samuel Ackerly to the Board of Health recommended that the ban on interments at Trinity be made permanent. Dr. Ackerly related the story of the Cathedral of Dijon, “which [recently] produced a malignant disease in the congregation from the putrid bodies of the persons buried in the vaults of the Church. The disease ceased after the Church was ventilated and fumigated.” This case was presented to the Board of Health as “proof that noxious exhalations may arise from dead bodies.” Accordingly, Dr. Ackerly suggested that the source of the Yellow Fever epidemic may be Trinity Church Yard, where “the ground has been one hundred and twenty-four years receiving the dead, and the evil day has at length arrived. To strike at the root of the evil,” Dr. Ackerly advised, “no further interments should be allowed there. The graves might be leveled and covered with a body of clay, upon which a layer of lime, ashes and charcoal should be placed, and the grave stones laid flat, that the rain may run off and not penetrate the soil to hasten putrefaction and increase the exhalations.”
On September 15th, the Board of Health “respectfully request[ed]” that churches with adjacent burial grounds in lower Manhattan cover their graves “thickly with lime, or charcoal, or both.” On September 23rd, Trinity Church Yard was covered with 52 casks of lime. The next day, 192 bushels of slacked lime were spread in St. Paul’s church yard, a few blocks north of Trinity Church. On September 28th, 172 bushels of slacked lime were spread “upon the grave-yard and about the vaults of the North Dutch church corner of William and Fulton-streets. The grounds about this church were not extensive and principally occupied by vaults, which nevertheless emitted very offensive effluvia.” Thirty additional casks of lime were slacked and spread at Trinity Church on October 1st. On October 8th, the vaults of the Middle Dutch Church at the corner of Liberty and Nassau were covered with 40 casks of lime. “These vaults were exceedingly offensive,” the Board of Health reported. It was also reported that “the vaults of the French church in Pine-street in the vicinity of the former church also emitted disagreeable smells.”
By late November 1822, the Yellow Fever epidemic had subsided. With an eye towards preventing the next outbreak, the Common Council passed a resolution to consider the future of intra-mural burial.
“It appears to be the opinion of Medical Men that the great number of the dead interred in the several cemeteries within the bounds of this City, is attended with injurious consequences to the health of the inhabitants. This subject is therefore worthy of consideration and if the effects are in reality such as some of the faculty declare them to be, ought not future interments be prohibited at least during a part of the year. …”
A law forbidding interments south of Canal Street was proposed in early 1823. At the time, there were at least 23 separate burial grounds south of Canal Street, many adjacent to churches. The leaders of the Reformed Dutch Church, the First Presbyterian Church, Grace Church, St. George’s Church, Christ’s Church, and Vestry of Zion Church all presented remonstrances to the Common Council in February 1823 objecting to the proposed law. Over those objections, a Law Respecting the Interment of the Dead was enacted by the Common Council on March 31, 1823.
“Be it ordained by the Mayor Aldermen & Commonalty of the City of New York in Common Council Convened. That if any Person or Persons shall after the first day of June next dig up or open any grave or cause or procure any grave to be opened in any burying ground cemetery or church yard or in any other part or place in this City which lies to the Southward of a line commencing at the centre of Canal Street on the North River and running through the centre of Canal Street to Sullivan Street thence through Sullivan st. to Grand Street thence through Grand St. to the East river or shall inter or deposit or cause or procure to be interred or deposited in any such grave any dead body every such person shall forfeit and pay for every such offence the sum of Two hundred and fifty dollars.”
“And be it further Ordained that no dead body shall after the first day of June aforesaid be interred or deposited in any vault or tomb south of the aforesaid line under the penalty of Two hundred and fifty dollars for each and every offence.”
Churches south of Canal Street continued to fight the law. On April 21, 1823, the leaders of St. George Church, the Brick Presbyterian Church, the First Presbyterian Church of Wall Street, and Trinity Church requested revisions to permit some burials and entombments in private vaults. But the die had been cast. As the population of Manhattan grew, the Common Council moved the line prohibiting new burials northward, first to 14th Street, then to 86th Street. Without the income generated by burials, many churches closed their doors and relocated their dead to the new rural cemeteries in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.
Similar complaints in Boston prompted the creation of Mount Auburn Cemetery, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of the most important and earliest rural cemeteries. Justice Joseph Story gave the address at the dedication of Mount Auburn cemetery in 1831. Story, then an Associate Justice on the United States Supreme Court and a professor at Harvard Law School, emphasized “the duty of the living” to “provide for the dead.” He explained that although the obligation to provide “grounds … for the repose of the dead” is a Christian duty, our “tender regard for the dead” is universal and “deeply founded in human affection.”
Justice Story explained that Mount Auburn had been founded to cure the problem with the Boston colonial cemeteries.
“It is painful to reflect, that the Cemeteries in our cities, crowded on all sides by the overhanging habitations of the living, are walled in only to preserve them from violation. And that in our country towns they are left in a sad, neglected state, exposed to every sort of intrusion, with scarcely a tree to shelter their barrenness, or a shrub to spread a grateful shade over the new-made hillock.”
Story argued that “there are higher moral purposes” that lead us to establish and care for cemeteries—”[i]t should not be for the poor purpose of gratifying our vanity or pride, that we should erect columns, and obelisks, and monuments to the dead; but that we may read thereon much of our own destiny and duty.”
“[T]he repositories of the dead bring home thoughts full of admonition, of instruction, and slowly but surely, of consolation also. They admonish us, but their very silence, of our own frail and transitory being. They instruct us in the true value of life, and in its noble purposes, its duties, and its destinations. … We return to the world, and we feel ourselves purer, and better, and wiser, from this communion with the dead.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this first episode in my series on Cemetery Tourism, and I hope that next time you’re in New York or Boston, you take the time to check out not only these colonial cemeteries located in the heart of the old cities, but the beautiful rural cemeteries that were later constructed – Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Green-wood in Brooklyn and Woodlawn in the Bronx. I’ll perhaps talk about the rural cemetery movement in a future episode. If you are interested in having me focus on particular cemeteries, please let me know by visiting www.deathetseq.com or dropping me a comment or a direct message on Facebook or Twitter.
Thank you for joining me today on Death, et seq.