Old Granary Burying Ground Skeleton Art

October 13, 2011 — The lessons that you’re supposed to take away from Boston’s historic cemeteries like the Old Granary Burying Ground are ones involving history, democracy, liberty, mortality. The only one I ever come away with, though, is that you can never have too many skulls and skeletons. Sure, every cemetery is brimming with bones, but the Old Granary is packed aboveground with these grisly bits of human framework…inscribed on just about every gravestone. I dig this and do not find it at all redundant.

Following Boston’s Freedom Trail is the most direct and efficient way to get to the Old Granary on Tremont Street, or you can ask anybody wearing a tri-corner hat or a bonnet. The graveyard was instituted in 1660, and even at that age is still the third oldest of the three historic burying grounds in downtown Boston, the other two being Copp’s Hill and King’s Chapel, with each one having their own fair amount of skull iconography, as well.

The Old Granary is filled with the august leftovers of famous historic personages, including John Hancock, the Boston Massacre victims, Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, the parents of Benjamin Franklin, and more. But I like the engravings of skeletons in funny positions the best.

There are anthropological reasons why people adorned their dead with images of the hardened minerals of the human body (other than the fact that the smiley face icon hadn’t yet been created), but at some point, like everything else, it just boils down to being a pretty cool thing to do…at least, according to the most respected scholarly written books on the topic.

I wrote about the skull iconography of all three historic Boston cemeteries in (scarcely) more detail in the neither respected nor scholarly—and barely even written—New England Grimpendium, so I don’t have too much to add here for the Old Granary specifically. However, what’s not in the book is tons of pictures of these skeletors [sic]. And since I’m of the firm belief that a picture not posted is a picture not taken, and a picture not taken is a moment that didn’t happen, here are a bunch from the Old Granary.

You can almost hear the bones rattling on these Bostones.






Not to get too precise, but there are about a bazillion
variations on the winged skull motif at the Old Granary.
I captured just a few of the styles for this post.





Helpfully labeled Memento mori.
Again, I willfully don't find this redundant.

Even the grave erroneously fabled to be that
of the famous Mother Goose wants us to
remember her not as she was, but as she is.




Bravo, lawn personnel.

7 comments:

  1. Sometime in the 1800s, probably later half of it, their Victorian sensibilities told them that Old Granary's graves were arrayed far too haphazardly... so they moved them all around every which way and lined them up in relatively neater rows! This means that most of the people listed on the graves are not listed below them but could be anywhere, a thought which drives me crazy!! Franklin's parents are indeed below their monument though (if anything is left of them...) because, as a visitor there will see, their grave is way bigger than anyone else's there by far and was too big to bother to move like the normal stones.

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    1. This was one of my favorite Boston "haunts," until I overheard a tour guide whimsically tell this tragic tale. I, too, am bothered beyond comprehension that the stones were moved for aesthetic as well as technological reasons (to accommodate the lawn mower), leaving, as you said, the underdweller unrecognized by the lighted world. Upon learning this fact, I swore off the cemetery, for authenticity should prevail in all cases historic, regardless of ease of groundskeeping!

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    2. This was one of my favorite Boston "haunts," until I overheard a tour guide whimsically tell this tragic tale. I, too, am bothered beyond comprehension that the stones were moved for aesthetic as well as technological reasons (to accommodate the lawn mower), leaving, as you said, the underdweller unrecognized by the lighted world. Upon learning this fact, I swore off the cemetery, for authenticity should prevail in all cases historic, regardless of ease of groundskeeping!

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  2. I've read that the gravestone rearrangement was to accomodate lawn mowers...

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  3. I am privileged to reside in England (I married an Englishman and thought if one of us has to move it might as well be me) and in almost every churchyard you go into there are gravestones like this. I am sure the local people mostly ignore them but to a person from the North Georgia mountains where the oldest grave was from 1836 in the local cemetery it never fails to thrill me when I see a gravestone so old the letters (and carvings of skulls) have been so warn away by time it is impossible to read them.

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  4. There are many like this at Trinity Churchyard in NYC as well. Such a thrill to see! And when I visited Edinburgh, Scotland last year, I almost lost my mind when I visited Greyfriars. Thanks for a great post!

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  5. the winged skull is the angel of death. Experts on New England tombstones (I knew one once and spent a 4th of July traipsing through graveyards!) can tell by appearance the different styles. I believe the unwinged skull was the latest version. After that the locals adopted the weeping willow as a symbol. Granery may have ben filled up by that time.

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