Basements and Belfries: The King’s Chapel Bells & Bones Tour

October 6, 2019 — I’ve been to King’s Chapel in Boston a few times, but only to see the adjacent graveyard. That small dead zone that’s actually not a part of the church despite sharing a name has amazing skeleton art on its tombstones, a gravestone that some say inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and is the final resting place of a Salem Witch Trials judge.

But this time, I needed to go deeper. Deeper than graves. We’re talking crypts.

King’s Chapel was finished in 1754 and is not at all the quaint, white-steepled ideal of a New England church. It’s made of dark stone, with a colonnaded, almost Grecian porch, and no steeple. It was built to replace a wooden church that had stood on the spot since the mid-1600s.

The public can only access its crypt on its Bells & Bones Tour. The crypt, of course, is the Bones part. The Bells part is that after you descend to the closest parts of the church to hell, you ascend to the closest parts of the church to heaven, the bell tower.

We entered the crypt through a small, promising, gate-covered door on the outside of the church facing the Old Town Hall (currently a Ruth’s Chris). Inside, however, was one of the least creepy crypts I’ve been in. It’s mostly a basement used as storage for old furniture and as a pathway for plumbing. The tombs line the walls in uniform humps, but, with the exception of two, don’t have placards to denote the bodies inside. It’s possible to miss the fact that these hangar-shaped bumps of brick are even tombs.

The burial ground next door predates the church by about a hundred years and once extended past where the church now stands, but the crypts were built as part of the church. As to the dead who once reposed where the church now churches, they were moved before Dorothy’s house dropped on them and were jumbled up with the rest of the bodies in the shrinking burial ground next door, with no physical correlation to the skull- and skeleton-adorned gravestones above. Often the way with old historic cemeteries in the middle of growing cities.

The tombs were all sealed and hadn’t been opened in about half a century, but our tour guide showed us photos of the insides, strewn with bones and rotting caskets. As to the two tombs with placards, one gave the name of the family, Lloyd, while the other included a snatch of poetry that begins with, “Death is the good man’s friend.”

The third most interesting tomb down there is the one that is now a bathroom. Sorta. The church built a staff bathroom directly in front of one of the crypts, using the crypt’s front wall as the bathroom’s side wall, which was whitewashed to make the room seem more bathroom-y. They don't, but should call this, the bathtomb.

From there, the tour guide took us up through a secret pew door into the main church, up a set of stairs into the choir loft, then behind the organ and up some ladder-like stairs to the belfry. The massive hunk of ringing bronze dominated the small belfry space, which had large openings on all four walls covered with slats and chicken wire. A chill cross-breeze blew through the attic, and we could clearly hear the din of crowds and traffic below. The whole room felt vertiginous. More vertiginous than the crypt felt claustrophobic.

The bell was about four or five feet tall and was cast in England. It was hung above the church in 1772, but when it developed a crack some 40 years later, it was taken down and recast by Paul Revere’s foundry. The thing is massive. We placed our hands under the lip of the bell, which felt about six inches thick. According to our guide, nobody can be in the belfry when it rings without risking hearing damage.

The tour was definitely worth taking. It felt like our small group of five were being allowed admittance to secret parts of Boston. Also, never say no to a crypt visit, and almost never say no to a belfry visit.