Granary Burying Ground: Back in colonial days people really knew how to die!


Last week my in-laws came up to visit the grandkids (and Wendy and me, too). One of the places we visited was the Granary Burying Ground.

Now, I don’t mean to brag, but I know burying grounds.  My dad’s a preacher and when you grow up living near churches you grow up living near burying grounds.  In fact, we even used a fancy, specialized word for them (“cemetery”) because “burying ground” just sounds primitive.  I used to take my dog, Sandy, for walks through the cemetery behind one of my dad’s churches, but then somebody called my dad to complain that walking dogs in graveyards was disrespectful and that ended that. 

Anyway, the Granary Burying Ground really brought back memories, but I have to admit it outdid the little churchyard cemeteries of my youth.  The colonials weren’t into “memorial gardens” or “remembrance paths”.  No.  They knew how to send a folks off right!  Every grave marker was designed to shout to the world, “Hey!  There’s a dead body buried right here!  We poked it and it was definitely dead.”

Example 1:

Granary Burying Ground 1

Example 2:

Sometimes being dead can be relaxing!
Apparently, being dead can be relaxing!  Seriously.  That is one chill skeleton.

The visual embrace of bones is in stark contrast to the cherubs, the washed-out, enameled photos of the deceased in their youth, and the engravings of floral bouquets tied with swirling ribbons I remember as the primary decor on the tombstones of my youth.  I guess the times were a bit bleaker before electricity and indoor plumbing.

In spite of changing times, not everything is different.  We may have drifted away from decorating tombstones with lazy skeletons and winged skulls with hollow eyes, but we still like to make sure everybody knows exactly who was a nobody and who was a somebody.

Here's where Frank is buried.  What?  His last name?  I dunno.  But he was John Hancock's servant!
Here’s where Frank is buried. What? His last name? I dunno. But he was John Hancock’s servant!

For example, this is Frank’s grave.  Here’s what we know about Frank.  1) His name was Frank, 2) he was the servant of John Hancock’s (of large signature on the Declaration of Independence fame), and 3) he died on January 23rd.  The tombstone doesn’t tell us Frank’s last name or where he was from or how he died or if he had a family.  In contrast, that’s John Hancock’s tombstone towering high above Frank’s.  Apparently, Hancock’s need to be bigger wasn’t limited to just his signature on the Declaration of Independence.  Ah, but I kid poor Mr. Hancock.  He wasn’t the megalomaniac I’ve made him out to be.  The giant memorial behind Frank the Servant’s tombstone wasn’t actually erected until 1895 when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts decided to put it there.

Anyway, the Granary Burying Ground is one of those types of places in Boston that could be easy to miss if you live nearby just because you never get around to it, but it’s definitely worth a visit.  There are lots of other interesting gravestones aside from John Hancock’s and Frank’s (Good news: Mother Goose was a real person!  Bad news: She’s dead.  Good news: She’s buried in the Granary Burying Ground!).  Crispus Attucks and the others killed in the Boston Massacre as well as Paul Revere, Sam Adams, and others are there, too.

It’s always pretty amazing to step back in time 300 years or so.  There are so many places in a city like Boston that provide that, that it can be easy to take it for granted.  Don’t miss this one.  It’s incredible how still and reverent the place can feel when it’s surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the city.  It doesn’t take long to visit, so if you live in the Boston area don’t let it become one of those things that all the tourists have seen, but that you never get around to doing.