Old Burial Ground

Old Burial Ground

The Old Burial Ground is located in Harvard Square, on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Garden Street.  Some history of the development of this site, provided by the Cambridge Historical Commission, appears below.

The first cemetery in Newtowne was "without the Common Pales" on the south side of Brattle Street, probably between present Ash Street and Longfellow Park. Being outside the perimeter fence, it was not safe from wild animals, and was discontinued before the West End fields were opened for settlement in 1634. No trace of this cemetery has been found.

The Old Burying Ground was established inside the pales before 1635. Initially, it covered only about an acre, but its size doubled as more of the Common was enclosed. The construction of Christ Church in 1760 established both the line of Garden Street and the western boundary of the cemetery, while the First Parish Church was built much later, in 1833. In many New England towns the burying ground was placed next to the meeting house, but that was never the case in Cambridge; here, the churches were built after the cemetery.

As the only cemetery in Cambridge for nearly two hundred years, the Old Burying Ground received a cross section of the population, from paupers to Harvard presidents. Burial spaces in the early years were not permanently marked, and the cemetery contains many more remains than are in the 1,218 known graves. Most of the monuments are slate headstones with scalloped shoulders. The oldest, dated 1653, belongs to Anne Erinton, but the stone may have been placed later, as headstones did not come into general use until the 1670s.

The earliest headstones have death's-heads of medieval origin. This motif changed to winged cherubs under the influence of the Renaissance and finally to graceful urn-and-willow patterns in the Neoclassic period. The late-17th- and early-18th-century gravestones are the most striking, with inventive epitaphs and details. The finest are the six stones by Joseph Lamson, whose straightforward naturalism and inventive use of detail are seen in the 1692 stone of William Dickson.

Interspersed among the traditional markers are the late-18th-century altar stones denoting the wealth and social standing of their owners, who were largely Anglicans. As in Britain, upper-class families wished to be interred in burial vaults rather than in caskets placed directly in the ground. The John Vassal tomb is the most elaborate. This structure marks an extensive subterranean vault; when last opened in 1862, it contained twenty-five caskets, including that of Andrew Craigie, who had acquired the family's Christ Church pew and burial plot along with the Vassal estate in 1792.   Learn more

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