In Boston, the dead are everywhere. They are immortalized as statues in the middle of courtyards and public walkways; they show up on plaques tacked onto the outside of historic buildings and screwed onto the backs of park benches. They lie in the ground across nineteen different cemeteries spread out across the commonwealth. The city has grown up around many of these burial grounds, putting down pubs, shops, and schools next to final resting places. Suburban cemeteries are typically tucked into the back and corner pockets of a town, making them destination places for the living as much as for the dead. Boston’s city plots invite traffic, which I find comforting. In death and in life, no one wants to be the lonely girl at the party.
There are nineteen cemeteries in the Boston area dating back to the early-1600s. I take New England’s status as the crotchety, centenarian grandmother of the country for granted. As the first part of the country Puritans cheerfully regifted back to themselves from Native Americans, New England has been around the block. I remember years ago going out to northern California to visit a friend who lived in a small town celebrating their seventy-fifth anniversary. We have trees older than your town, I told her.
Our graveyards are part history lesson and part tourist destination. The Granary Burial Grounds is one of the city’s oldest and most star-studded cemeteries. It’s a deceptively small courtyard plot a short walk from the Park Street T stop that spills onto the Boston Common. The Granary is now nestled among modern buildings; across the street sits the Suffolk University Law School. I’m sure the irony of studying such a punishing profession as law across the way from a cemetery is not lost on certain students.
The Granary holds 5,000 inhabitants with about 2,300 headstones. It’s Boston’s first overcrowded neighborhood and it’s most star-studded. Those resting in peace include Samuel “Let’s Get Revolutionized and Drink Beer” Adams; John “I’m Not Compensating For Anything With My Giant Signature” Hancock; and Paul “Get Your Asses Out of Bed The British Are Coming” Revere. A 25-foot obelisk squats at the center of the cemetery marking the gravesite of Benjamin Franklin’s parents. Though Franklin was born in Boston, he spent most of his formative years in Philadelphia, preferring burial in the City of Brotherly Love over the City of Dirty Water and Violent Sports Fans.
Walking through the Granary feels more like wandering through a museum. Tourists filter into the cemetery year round. Volunteers stand outside of the wrought iron entrance, handing out maps that direct visitors to the most famous plots. Kids run ahead of their parents, bored—what kind of park is this with no swings and a bunch of rocks? People take photographs of the stones or selfies with the markers, meandering along the narrow walkways that extend like capillaries between the graves. It’s a never ending open house—no one lingers for longer than it takes to find a couple of historical headstones or make a requisite “that’s pretty old joke: “1709? No Internet back then!” They check the site off their list and scroll on their phones to find the quickest route to Faneuil Hall or the aquarium.
The first time I visited a cemetery was on fifth grade field trip. Some classes get to go to zoos or visit the state capitol, we went to roam around a local burying ground. I think this is what’s called education on a budget. Our teacher, Mrs. Sinnibaldi, whom everyone referred to as Mrs. Sin, was a lot like Robin Williams’ John Keating character from Dead Poets Society— minus the desk standing. Mrs. Sin nurtured individuality and creative thinking; she was the kind of teacher who handily folded life-lessons into our work in the classroom without any of us being none the wiser of her kind, but firm, guidance helping us to become young people who weren’t flaming embarrassments to society. After reciting the pledge of allegiance each morning, Mrs. Sin would ask us to sit and observe a minute of silence. Sixty seconds just for you, she’d say cheerfully. Chat with Jesus, take a short doze, or sweat out a lie about not having your social studies homework done—it was all the same to Mrs. Sin, stealthily teaching us the power of the pause.
There was no formal art class or program at our elementary school. Mrs. Sin took it upon herself to create her own arts curriculum. Every few weeks, she’d take an hour out of some Thursday to do something arts-related with the class. I’m not talking about glue a bunch of pipe cleaners together to make a mobile or paint a wooden cigar box. Mrs. Sin’s art projects were the kind of high-level situations you’d find on Pinterest. One involved giving us all empty wine bottles that she had collected (why do you have so many wine bottles lying around, Mrs. Sin, I thought one morning during our daily morning of silence). Ripping up little pieces of masking tape, we plastered the pieces all over the bottle at odd and overlapping angles. We painted the bottles—blue, red, purple, green—to make them look like “cracked” pottery vases. She had us get cheap calligraphy pen sets and taught us how to do calligraphy lettering. And in the spring, she brought us to the cemetery to do headstone rubbings.
To make the rubbing, all you had to do was press a large piece of paper tightly against the stone and bear down with a dark colored crayon to fill in the entire paper. The designs and writing magically appeared to give you a rendering of the stone’s artwork. Armed with our supplies and a terrifying lecture about respecting the grounds and the sanctity of the space that concluded with something to the effect of being personally hand-delivered to our parents at home or place of work should any of us get out of line, we were let loose into the sprawling cemetery. Simple. In fact, probably the least technically complicated art project we ever did in Mrs. Sin’s class. Except it was complicated, this business about taking the markers of dead folk and turning them into colorful wall art.
Giggling away our nervousness by making stupid jokes about Halloween and every horror flick we’d ever seen, my friends and I strolled up and down the rows of headstones. True to New England form, many dated back to the 1800s. Some were weathered so smooth that they contained no etchings at all, leaving the deceased in total obscurity forever. Mrs. Sin had told us to look for whatever struck our eye in terms of the stone’s artwork. There was no wrong choice, she explained. Capture whatever inspires you.
I was not inspired. I was scared. I didn’t want to stand on someone’s grave let alone touch their headstone, which when faced with doing just that, I felt it was a violation of some sort, like the unwanted embrace from a boss or pervy uncle. Did they know this was part of the deal when they picked out their plot? Did they think that instead of flowers or flags on their graves, one day they’d have elementary school kids pressed up against their final resting place with paper and crayons, making a fun, artsy day of it in the cemetery? We spend a lot of time spit-balling about what happens after we die, but that’s only part of it. Our death culture makes it easy for us to keep sticking around with our cemetery plots, memorials, sacred or favorite spaces graced with our ashes and, now, social media sites. It’s worth considering how to handle the departed adjacent.
I finally stopped in front of a pair of headstones for a husband and wife who lived and died in the early-1920s. The wife’s marker contained a simple, elegant pair of angel wings that spanned the top of the headstone followed by her name, Charlotte O’Brien, and birth and death dates. Sorry, I murmured, kneeling down in front of the stone, tacking my paper against its rough, cold face. I scribbled furiously and as quickly as I could. The rendering was weak. The lines of the wings faded in and out. The “2” in the woman’s birth year looked more like a “7.” A small rip appeared near the bottom of the paper where I had pressed too tightly against a divot in the stone. Thanks, I said as I got up and brushed the damp earth from my jeans, jogging to catch up with everyone else already heading back to the bus.