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  • Historic Cemetery Survey Begins

    Steve Anable

    Published Date : February 1984
    Each morning, Rosanne Atwood-Humes of Melrose pulls on her canvas tool apron and leaves the Bostonian Society for a graveyard. (The Bostonian Society was organized in 1881 to promote the study of the history of Boston and the preservation of its antiquities.) Her specific destination is King's Chapel Burying Ground on Tremont Street, Boston.

    Rosanne is a Northeastern University senior and is a YANKEE intern under a grant from YANKEE Publishing, Inc., in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She is working for the Bostonian Society, headquartered in the Old State House. She records the physical dimensions of each gravestone, whether it is cracked, tilted or in relatively good condition. She notes whether it is made of slate, granite, marble or some other material and she records each inscription. This study and surveys at other cemeteries constitute the Historic Cemeteries Assessment Project.

    "There are footstones as well as headstones," Rosanne says. "These are comparable to the head and foot of a bed. The person in the grave was just 'sleeping.' He would be getting up from his bed on Resurrection Day."

    Many people are familiar with the winged skulls and hourglasses carved on stones from the Puritan era. Some stones also included garlands of fruit and vegetables around their borders. There are stones carved with fig leaves, squash, pears, corn and grapes at the King's Chapel Burying Ground. These symbolized "eternal plenty." Winged skulls gave way to winged cherub heads. Explains Rosanne, " As the economy became more mercantile, people didn't dwell on death as flinch."

    Rosanne stopped at a stone sunken deep in the grass. It is carved with what appears to be a shroud. "The shroud is unusual for the seventeenth century," she explained. The grave is that of Sarah Leverett.

    As Rosanne digs with her trowel to clear away the dirt and expose the blurred inscription she uses a soft paint brush. Mrs. Leverett died June 6, 1679, "aged ____.

    "Sometimes stones were carved before the person died," says Rosanne. "Perhaps they just forget to put her age on it."

    Mrs. Leverett's stone is slate as are a majority of the six hundred or so monuments in the cemetery. Slate is somewhat more resistant to the sulphuric acid rains than marble. Still, rain can seep into cracks in the slate stones and accelerate damage caused by climate, age and vandalism. Some Japanese tourists pass through the cemetery followed by a businessman with a briefcase. A teenager comes along wearing a glittered T-Shirt. "People are interested in the project," Rosanne said. "They ask me a lot of questions about genealogy and the symbols on the stones." One woman wondered whether or not the stones were always the same color. Rosanne tells her how time and soot have changed each stone's appearance and about different types of stone used by the carvers, including weather-resistant greenstone.

    Ann Niles of the National Trust says that King's Chapel Burying Ground contains some of the finest funerary sculpture in New England. For many years these stones were almost taken for granted, but now they are being recognized as endangered works of early American art. Says Judy McDonough of the Boston Landmarks Commission, "Rosanne's survey is critical for establishing priorities of conservation and repair in this very sensitive area." Jim Bradley of the Massachusetts Historical Commission agrees. "Instead of talking about this problem, we're finally doing something. And Rosanne is going about it with enthusiasm. This is the first tangible step in saving the stones.

    After Rosanne is finished with John Winthrop, William Dawes, Freelove Gooding and Thankful Griggs at King' s Chapel, she is scheduled to begin cataloging the Old Granary Burying Ground, also in Boston.

    Bostonian Society director Thomas Wendell Parker observes, "When Charles Dickens visited America, he complained of its brash "newness." He said we lacked the antiquity of moss-covered tarts. Well, time has now solved that lack and it is up to the present generation to assure preservation of these ancient symbols of Boston, the resting place of its founders and sites not only of historic but artistic and literary fame. Only with such a survey can we begin the steps necessary for everyone to assist in the restoration of these famous spots.

    Readers interested in these projects my obtain further information by contacting Thomas W. Parker or Rupert A. M. Davis, The Bostonian Society, Old State House, 206 Washington St., Boston, MA, 02109. Phone: 1-(617)-242-5610 or 242-5656.

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