King’s Chapel Burial Ground

| January 8, 2018 | 0 Comments

Nestled between First Public School and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse on Tremont Street is the historic and charming King’s Chapel Burial Ground.

Established in 1630 in what was then the outskirts of a new Puritan settlement, King’s Chapel Burial Ground is the oldest burying ground in Boston. Many of the earliest immigrants to Boston from England were buried here, including Massachusetts’ first governor, John Winthrop. If you only know New England Puritans as the frigid settlers with quaint bonnets and impossible morals from high school English class, you’d only be half right. The Puritans were radical in their own ways, and their deviation from Catholicism–their emphasis on the self and one’s personal spiritual journey rather than a journey mediated by the Church–was crucial to the Transcendentalists of the 19th century and what we now think of as the American identity.

Their beliefs about death were particularly important, and they are manifest in the iconography of the gravestones at King’s Chapel Burial Ground. The earliest  gravestones show a skull with wings, the most morbid of the iconography. Famously iconophobic, the Puritans were wary of portraying angels or heavenly figures for fear of idol worshipping; they saw the death’s head icon as a more neutral reminder of death and resurrection. Below is a picture of one of the earliest and most famous gravestones, that of Joseph Tapping who died in 1678.

Gravestone of Joseph Tapping

Gravestone of Joseph Tapping

 

Later, however, as Puritan thinking shifted and as new trends in England made their way across the Atlantic, the winged death head icon was replaced with the winged cherub. While the death’s head emphasizes the mortality of man, the cherub emphasizes the resurrection of the soul.

Gravestone with winged cherub iconography

Gravestone with winged cherub iconography

 

Later still, the iconography shifted to that of the urn and willow. These became especially popular with the rise of religions such as Unitarianism and Methodism, which emphasized more intellectualism rather than emotion.

Gravestone with urn and willow iconography

Gravestone with urn and willow iconography

Walking the entire path within the burial ground takes only a few minutes. There are no benches, and walking and/or sitting on the grass is discouraged. If you’re looking for a graveyard to spend an afternoon, to have a picnic, to sit and read, or do anything except follow a short path, this is not the one. Still, any resident of Boston should visit.

When I visited the burial ground, there happened to be a rally going on one street over. People were marching in defense of DACA–the legislation that protects the so-called “dreamers” from being deported. As people chanted, “No hate. No fear. Immigrants are welcome here,” I felt an unexpected sense of compassion for the Puritans rotting below me. Though infamously rigid, America’s earliest immigrants went through hell to build their community here. As residents of Boston, we are all indebted to them.

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Category: East by West by T, featured

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