History and Notable Burials
Eight Harvard presidents lie in the Old Burying Ground, including three of the first four -- Henry Dunster, Charles Chauncy, and Urian Oakes – who were buried there in the 18th century before Harvard obtained its own adjoining plot. In 1846 the university decided to restore the monuments of its early presidents and undertook a search for the resting place of Henry Dunster, who died in 1654. Several likely graves were opened, and found to consist of brick vaults covered with slabs of stone, containing coffins and remains in various states of preservation. None could be identified positively, but the authorities decided that one skeleton wrapped in a tarpaulin shroud in a coffin stuffed with tansy (an aromatic native weed used to conceal the smell of decomposition) was Dunster’s, and ordered a monument for him. John Langdon Sibley, who recorded the exhumations in his Private Journal, was skeptical. Historian Robert Nylander thought it was more likely the body of the town's second minister, Reverend Jonathan Mitchell, who died in July 1668.
The cemetery contains the graves of at least nineteen Revolutionary soldiers, including the slaves Neptune Frost and Cato Stedman. John Hicks, William Marcy, and Moses Richardson were hastily buried after the hostilities of April 19, 1775. The dedication of the Soldiers Monument on Cambridge Common in 1870 reminded the city that the casualties of the Revolution had not been commemorated. Professor Eben Horsford claimed to have established the location of the soldiers’ common grave after examining a scrap of bloody cloth excavated from the site, and a granite shaft was erected in their memory. Many soldiers mortally wounded at the Battle of Bunker Hill were buried in a field across the road from Thomas Oliver's mansion (now 33 Elmwood Avenue), which served as a hospital. Remains found in the vicinity of Channing Street in the 1920s were reinterred in Cambridge Cemetery. While African Americans were routinely buried in the Old Burying Ground, the Lewis family established a private cemetery off Garden Street in 1835. This survived until 1877, when the remains were moved to the Cambridge Cemetery and the land sold for development.
In 1811 the town opened a new cemetery in Cambridgeport, and regular interments in the Old Burying Ground ceased, although owners of family tombs continued to use them; one of the last to do so was Richard Henry Dana, the poet, in 1879. Except for the ashes of Christ Church's minister, Dr. Gardiner Day, which were placed under a path in 1981, the last burial was that of the Reverend Samuel McChord Crothers, a minister of the First Parish, Unitarian, in 1927.
The old cemetery rarely received more than minimal maintenance. In 1701-2, Aaron Bordman, "requesting that he might have the improvement of the Burying-yard (to keep sheep in)," agreed to repair the gate and pay the Selectmen six shillings a year for the privilege (Town Records, 337). There are no records of repairs made at public expense until 1735, when the town built a stone wall. This was in ruins by the 1840s, when an observer noted that
It is rather surprising that, in this age of improvement, Cambridge should fall behind her neighbors, and suffer her ancient grave-yard to lie neglected ... Many of the tombs are without the names of the owners; many of the grave-stones have been broken, and more are broken every year; brambles abound instead of shrubbery; and what might be a beautiful cemetery is converted into a common passage-way. Unfitting is it, indeed, that the sod beneath which rests the ashes of a Shepard, a Dunster, and a Mitchell, should be rioted over by every vagrant schoolboy (Harris, v).
It was 1860 before the city replaced the ruined wall with a picket fence. Conditions improved after the Centennial, and the present iron fence was installed in 1891. In 1900, the cemetery commissioners, "after twenty years of effort to save money," rebuilt twenty brick tombs, reset innumerable headstones, and (apparently for the first time) planted trees and landscaped the grounds (Chronicle, Nov. 10, 1900).
In 1934, a committee that included President Conant of Harvard, Professor Samuel Eliot Morison, and preservationist William Sumner Appleton raised money for another restoration. A subsequent burst of enthusiasm during the Bicentennial enabled the Cambridge Historical Commission to restore many grave markers, work that continues on a regular basis.
Excerpt from Susan Maycock and Charles Sullivan. Building Old Cambridge: Architecture and Development. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press (forthcoming)
Cambridge Historical Commission
February 11, 2010