Thursday, January 13, 2011

Gravestones - Losing Historical Artifacts and Objects of Remembrance

Copp's Burial Ground in
Boston's North End
Last week, I visited Copp's Hill Burying Ground in Boston. Copp's Hill is the second oldest graveyard in the City. It is also the burial place of Cotton and Increase Mather who were major figures in our colonial history. Prince Hall, the "father" of black freemasonry is buried here with a stone erected in his honor. Copp's Hill is home to the marker commemorating Robert Gould Shaw of "Glory" fame.  He was formally buried at sea, but is remembered here by his townsmen. Robert Newman, the patriot who hung lamps in the North Church window as a signal to Paul Revere, is also here... So, as graveyards go, this is no slouch... Its condition implies otherwise.

Making my way to the historic spot last week, I marched uphill in my boots and a long overcoat. Watching my breath in the cold, I felt an air of anticipation at the thought of revisiting this site that I last saw in my college years. To set up the scene and my emotionalism for what I found, I should give a little of my own background. I have been a cemetery enthusiast since my father took me through Trinity Church burial ground in New York as a youngster. He made it a stopping point on daddy-daughter work days and pointed out the headstones of Robert Fulton and Alexander Hamilton. This was among my first memories of falling in love with history, imagining people who came before me and feeling an appreciation for how society became what it is today. In college, I had strong memories of these jaunts with my father when an art history instructor included slides of old burial stones in her lecture. She discussed how this was among the earliest colonial art. Enthralled with the idea of tying my interest in art to a more general interest in material culture and civilization, gravestone iconography became a large focus of my undergraduate academic work. I received a stipend through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program and spent over a year traveling through New England cemeteries to study changes in gravestone imagery. My final paper was accepted by the Undergraduate Research conference committee for presentation at Cal Tech (All the way across the country! I had never been so far from home!) Over the past twenty years, I have maintained my interest, stopping when I see little burial site on the side of the road and speaking passionately about the joys of viewing gravestones whenever someone will listen and allow me to try to override the sense of morbidity that many others feel about this topic.

The creation of a gravestone is for the living, but it is also for the deceased. Few items that man creates are consciously given this kind of status. It serves as an object of remembrance, hopefully portraying the departed as that person would have wished to be acknowledged. The gravestone becomes an historical object, that stands as testimony of an individual's life and accomplishments while also acknowledging a living bond that remains with the society that remembers. A gravestone's words and imagery tell us what was important to an individual and the person's loved ones. In the case of old grounds, the stones connect our modern society with a past that we treasure, reminding us how we got here, noting our appreciation to those who came before us, and I believe also upholding a responsibility that we have to those who are gone.

The marker of Robert Gould
Shaw is illegible

Copp's Hill is a mess. I cannot be blunter about that. One cannot even make out the words on the Shaw marker that our ancestors placed to honor this unique man. Gravestones are broken, their pieces are nowhere in sight. I can only hope that someone has them stored somewhere until they can be repaired and that they are not just gone for good. Stones are leaning into each other, many covered in lichen and with vines. There is no sense of honoring here, except for the Markers of the Mathers that some descendant likely conserved and this too troubles me. It would be unacceptable to me to watch the grounds around my loved ones rot away, imparting a feeling of some kind of cemetery ghetto. It is forgotten by those who think they have better things to do and better places to spend their money.
Broken, dislodged, and otherwise endangered stones dot the cemetery at Copp's Hill
To be fair, this is not a unique situation. In 1990, I wrote in my gravestone iconography study, "While doing my research it was quite disheartening to find some of New England's historical graveyards in horrendous condition. Broken and weathered images leave many stones as unrecognizable traces of ancestry and American history...It is my hope that through further gravestone studies, people will become more aware of the importance of these markers to those who made them and the importance they still carry for us to remember our ancestors..."

Perhaps gravestones are plentiful and common. Perhaps that is why we let this happen. Maybe we just can't bring ourselves to spend money on these old things in hard economic times. Perhaps it is an unwillingness to see beyond the gruesome and to really see these markers as historical objects... Whatever our reasons , I hope that I can help people realize that few resources give us such a direct tie to history. Those "left behind" make an effort to make a marker to remember. While personal papers can be easily discarded, a gravestone is made to survive -- perhaps for hundreds and hundreds of years if we take care to preserve them. Beyond the memories of individual people, gravestones hold information that help us better understand society's growth. Over time, the way we think about a person's accomplishments, our own role in society, and the idea of life and death itself changes. Gravestones reflect these changes in society just as much as any artifact in a museum or archive. It is a greater challenge to maintain the upkeep of on object that is not submitted to climate control and is instead pounded by all the natural and man-made forces we can subject it to, but that does not mean we should ignore that object.

The City of Boston has a responsibility to its history to do a better job  maintaining Copp's Hill. And we, as citizens of this country, need to do a better job as well. If we do not show that we appreciate this heritage and note objections to its current care, it will disappear. How can we show that we value this history? Can we collaborate to encourage and perhaps help its upkeep? What has been done in the past to secure these stones and has something recently changed that we can positively impact?  In the past month, we have heard much about the loss of historic sites in Italy in articles such as "While Pompeii Crumbles." The neglect of history should not, at the very least, occur because of apathy. We need to take note of what is happening to history and take a stand to make sure it doesn't happen here, before it's too late.


  1. Wonderful post. I agree on all points and share your sentiments especially when it comes to the unfortunate loss of historic gravestones. Lucky you got in there before all the snow.

  2. Thanks for posting! One of my favorite activities when I visit Boston is to explore the different burying grounds. I would love to see Copp's Hill better cared for.

  3. This is not a new problem.

    To prove it, here's a picture from a book published in 1895:

    Granted, the 1895 picture is intended to illustrate the old burying ground in Harvard Square, but the fact remains: That broken gravestone you saw may have been broken a century ago, with the pieces missing ever since. Books from the late 1800s have many comments about gravestone breakage and theft. John Hancock's original grave marker disappeared in the 1800s.

    That being said, the situation isn't getting any better, and methinks it's gotten worse just in the last 30 years that I've been working with tourists in Boston's historic graveyards.

    The HBGI (mentioned in earlier posts) is woefully underfunded. The comment about the long-dead not voting is spot on. For that matter, the tourists don't vote, at least not here, either. This explains why the state legislature didn't fund the public restroom on Hull Street (just down the street from Copp's Hill) last year. (It was a pet project of Sal DiMasi, now that he's gone, so is the funding). The only real money in tourism is in business travel and fancy conventions, which all goes to luxury hotels. Those people don't go to -- and don't care about -- the historic sites.

    The last 3 decades have seen significant increases in visitation along the Freedom Trail, especially in guided walking tours through the graveyards. This has increased the wear and tear but there has been no increase in money to repair the damage. I understand that two tour operators (Freedom Trail Foundation and Old Town Trolley) have made some donations to HBGI, but the huge crowds tromping through those spaces are just tearing things up faster than they can be repaired.

    I have photos I took of some important gravestones at the Granary in the early 1980s, and there's no trace of those stones today. (Benjamin Franklin's uncle and Samuel Adams' father-in-law.)

    Copp's Hill, which is in a more isolated location, has had many vandalism incidents in recent years, including cutting down of recently-planted trees, and spray-painting of stones. Entire rows of stones have been painted gray, to cover up graffiti.

    The Granary is also notorious for large amounts of trash and detritus that accumulate around some of the most visited graves, without ever being removed by the city.

    About 10 years ago, vandals took a stone that had been stolen from another cemetery (God only knows where), and they deposited it in a prominent location at the Granary. (Madeline F. Conner, died Dec. 24, 1944.) It's still there, lying on the ground, all these years later! It's been there long enough that it's now starting to show up in guidebooks as the "most recent" burial in that graveyard. (Trust me, I KNOW that stone wasn't there in the 1980s!!) But the Parks Department has done absolutely nothing to reverse that obvious act of vandalism.

    May Madeline Conner rest in peace, wherever she is.

    1. Charles,
      Thank you for clearing up the mystery of Madeline F. Conner's marker in the Granary Cemetary in Boston. I wondered about the prominent location of her burial so much that I took a picture of it when visiting this summer of 2012 so that I wouldn't forget to research it.

  4. Compared to the other historic burying grounds, Copp's Hill fares better. There are many in the area that are used for drug dealing and other nefarious activities. While I was taking photographs, my son-in-law had to scare away a would-be attacker in broad daylight. There are many stones in the Forbes collection that are nowhere to be found. In the little town I live in, the selectmen allowed some construction workers to dig through the nearby burial for an expansion of the town hall and not a word to the families or the local historical society

    This is a wonderful article. The Association for Gravestone Studies would be proud!

  5. Thank you for your comments everyone.

    It's definitely not a new problem, but I do think it is getting worse. Gravestones are easy targets for vandals, greatly affected by pollutants, and easy to make a low priority on any funding agenda. Thanks for filling in some details Charles.

    For anyone interested...I've scanned and put on the Internet the thesis to which I refer in the blog post. You can find it at The thesis was previously available without images, but the pictures add a lot to the story. I'm not sure how I expected people to appreciate a piece of writing about iconography without showing the images about which I wrote, but my technology when I first put it online ten years ago was limited. I've been meaning to do it properly for a long time now. I hope that you enjoy it...thanks for your interest that provided the incentive to get it done!

  6. Just a note, Robert Gould Shaw was not buried at sea. He is buried at Fort Wagner with his men in a mass grave.

    Also, I believe that the shear amount of people going into these burying grounds has sped up their decay. People who have no idea about how to treat them are walking in between stones, touching them, leaning on them, and walking all over the dead. They do this on their own and while they are with tour guides.

  7. Hi Jocelyn,

    Thanks for the clarification on Shaw.

    Yes, much damage can be caused by visitors, but I do not think that most of the problem at Copp's is for that reason. For example, the top of Shaw's monument, way over my head, is completely illegible, in part due to the softness of this particular marker's stone, but it is clear here that little if any effort has been made to remedy this. Vine covered stones are also do to neglect, not tour groups. In my opinion, broken stones are likely due to vandalism or mishaps with a lawn mower, not common wear. Vandalism is always compounded by the seeming lack of attention to a site. Finally, stones falling over and clustering together is clearly due to lack of preservation measures. The ground freezes and thaws and stones need to be properly reset.

    I think in this case, it is really the relatively low visitation that is a detriment to Copp's. For example, one does not find this kind of condition at graveyards such as King's Chapel and Burying Ground just a few miles from this site and also owned by the City of Boston. King's Chapel, I am willing to go out on a limb and say, is more heavily trafficked just because of its prime location. I think if the City were to let what is happening at Copp's happen at King's Chapel, there would be a greater outcry. It is easier to ignore what is tucked away and less accessible.

    Historic preservation is never easy and there are always a lot of contributing factors to deterioration of public monuments and the like. More attention, greater resources, collaboration, and public education are all needed here.

  8. I'm re-reading posts from yesterday and I realize that I stand corrected on at least part of the visibility issue. I'm saddened to hear of the condition of the Granary. I will reiterate that vandalism tends to increase in areas that seem to lack attention. If some common gravestone preservation measures were taken here, the sites would be less targeted.

  9. Very interesting and well written. Thank you.

  10. I developed an interest in cemetery documentation a few years ago, and quickly became enthralled with repair work. I would love to spend the rest of my days clearing, cleaning, mapping, documenting, photographing, and of course repairing cemeteries.

    I just need a benefactor to keep me stocked w/supplies & some health insurance :-)

    It saddens me that you cannot make a living caring for such important items.
    Thank you for such a thought-provoking article, reminding us that they are still there, waiting for a bit of care & respect.

  11. Wonderful post and well written.

  12. I've been photographing gravestones for years now and posting them to my website at Unfortunately this is a common problem all over New England. Government agencies responsible for protecting these historic resources need to take more of an active interest. Cemeteries need ongoing restoration, preservation and protection.

  13. Copp's Hill receives estate funds