|Copp's Burial Ground in |
Boston's North End
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
|Broken, dislodged, and otherwise endangered stones dot the cemetery at Copp's Hill|
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.