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History of Central Burying Ground

In the latest Historic Burying Grounds newsletter, we recounted the history of Central Burying Ground, which is located on the Boylston Street side of Boston Common.

Central Burying Ground was opened in response to overcrowding at the other three burying grounds in Boston. It is also one of four burying grounds that suffered disfiguring alterations during the 19th century. Central, Market Street, South End, and Walter Street Burying Grounds were all disturbed by the widening of the street running along their perimeter. South End Burying Ground lost even more land through the erection of private buildings on burying ground land. However Central Burying Ground was disfigured twice to conform to changing needs of modernity and the public good.

110 years after the founding of Boston, the town’s three burial sites, King’s Chapel, Granary, and Copp’s Hill Burying Grounds, were getting perilously full. On March 10, 1740, a group of several gravediggers presented a petition to the town selectmen complaining that the burying grounds were so full they had to bury people four-bodies deep and it was difficult to avoid disturbing previously buried corpses. They asked the selectmen to recommend a solution to the problem. From this point, it was not until sixteen years later, in 1756, that land was actually purchased for a new burying ground.

HBGI aerial central
An aerial view of Central Burying Ground on the edge of Boston Common, next to Boylston Street.

In 1748, after several additional requests and petitions in town meetings for a new burying ground, the selectmen appointed a committee to research a suitable parcel of land at the south end of town. At that time the south end of Boston was only a little tail to the larger central town, so there was not much land to choose from. The selectmen wanted to avoid taking any land from the Common, which was used for public grazing and military training. The committee recommended a privately owned lot at the southeast end of the Common, near where modern-day Tremont and Boylston streets intersect. They also recommended that a road be laid out between the proposed burying ground and the abutting property, which would have required using a small amount of the Common land. This proposal was debated at town meeting and not accepted, perhaps because it reduced public grazing land. 

A new urgent call for additional burial space was voiced again in town meeting in May 1754 by many people living in the south end of Boston. Once again they complained, in a more graphic manner, that “...it is scarcely possible for the sexton to dig a Grave as it ought to be Dug, but what they must necessarily disturb the Ashes of two or three or more, and it is very often the Case that fresh Corps are dug up, that have not been long interr’d, which sight is scarcely decent….” These people also complained that it was a long way to carry the dead in order to reach the other burying grounds. Based on this testimony another committee was pulled together to look for an appropriate parcel of land for a new burial spot. It is worth noting that a smallpox epidemic broke out in 1752 between the first and second public request for a new burying ground. In addition to the regular deaths in Boston, gravediggers had to bury an additional 514 people in three crowded burying grounds.

The new committee managed to convince Andrew Oliver, Jr., who owned pasture land adjacent to the Common, to sell his property to the town, for use as a new burying ground. The town negotiators and Mr. Oliver agreed on the price of 200 pounds (very roughly $30,000 today) for this parcel. The sale did not take place until two years later in September 1756.

The site was declared ready to accept burials on November, 27, 1756. Before this could take place, a gate was placed in the site (presumably previously fenced) and a dedicated sexton, John Ransted, was appointed by the selectmen to make burials in the site. Only certain people (sextons) were allowed to conduct burials in the burying grounds and they were always chosen by the selectmen. The following spring, Mr. Ransted was also allowed to rent the burying ground land for pasturage for his animals at the rate of four pounds per year.

Presumably the in-ground burials started soon after the site was officially opened. Curiously the oldest existing gravestone is for Elizabeth Ransted who died June 27, 1755, a year and a half before the site opened. The headstone also sadly states that her six children were buried with her. One possibility is that she was initially buried elsewhere but then reinterred to be with her children when they died (after the burying ground was opened). Elizabeth’s husband was most likely John Ransted, the sexton of Central Burying Ground. The next oldest gravestone is for Benjamin Frobisher, an infant of one year, who died October 4, 1761. 

The gravestone of Elizabeth Ransted
The gravestone of Elizabeth Ransted, who died in 1755, commemorates possibly the oldest burial in Central Burying Ground.

People who wanted to build an underground tomb for their family had to petition the town selectmen. Tombs are underground masonry crypts designed to hold multiple burials. A staircase led from the surface level down to the room which held the burials. A stone slab that could be opened and closed as needed was placed on top of the staircase to close the hole in the ground. Tomb burials are different than in-ground graves where a grave digger would be paid to dig a hole in the ground to bury the deceased. In a tomb burial the gravedigger was paid to open up the tomb and carry the body into it. The first record in the selectmen’s minutes of a request to build a tomb in Central Burying Ground was in February 1766 by David Wheeler. Curiously the meeting minutes state that Mr. Wheeler could build his tomb next to the tomb of Thomas Trott, however there are no records of Mr. Trott requesting permission to build a tomb. Obviously there are many burials that happened in this burying ground for which there are no records.

HBGI tomb graphic
This sketch shows a cross section of an underground tomb. The bodies are placed underground in the large tomb area. The tomb is accessed by the stairway that descends from the ground level. To close the tomb, a stone slab is laid over the stairs.

The regulations concerning burials were decided by the town selectmen. Since Central Burying Ground was established as a result of the filling up of two of the three burying grounds in Boston, some of the regular burials which had been taking place in the older sites were transferred to Central Burying Ground. In July 1771 the sexton for the Almshouse, located directly next to the Granary Burying Ground, was granted permission to make burials in Central Burying Ground because the Granary and King’s Chapel Burying Grounds were too full. He also would be allowed to bury “strangers” (people who died in Boston from out of town with no family connections). In July 1779, Dr. Isaac Foster, Director General of Hospitals, was granted authorization to bury their soldiers and prisoners who died in the Continental Hospital (military).

For the burying grounds, as well as for the town of Boston, the years at the end of the 18th century were a transition between the old colonial way of doing things and the new ways of an organized city (Boston became a city in 1822) in the young American republic. For a good part of the 18th century the population of Boston experienced very little growth, rising from 17,000 in 1740 to 18,329 fifty years later in 1790. At this point Boston began to experience considerable population growth, growing to 33,787 in 1810 and 61,392 in 1830. The surge in people had ramifications in the burying grounds through an increased need for burial space and altered demands for usage of public lands.

HBGI wall tombs
These wall tombs were built around 1800. The burial crypts extend back into the Boston Common (underground).

In November 1795, a committee appointed at town meeting recommended the closure of Granary and King’s Chapel Burying Grounds due to the overcrowded conditions of the grounds. This committee consulted with physicians in Boston, who advised the committee that “the Health of the inhabitants is in danger from the crowded state of these Grounds, & the exhalations which must frequently arise from opening Graves therein.” The committee also recommended expanding Central Burying Ground to the west. Although the Granary and King’s Chapel Burying Grounds were not closed and Central Burying Ground was not expanded, there was a large increase in the number of tomb requests in Central Burying Ground that went before the selectmen. As a result tombs were built along the entire perimeter of the site. Also many more gravestones exist for the period 1796-1809 than for other periods. The new tombs on the southern edge of the site extended out to the edge of Frog Lane (soon to become Boylston Street). They were so popular that a second row of tombs running parallel to the first row was added. The rear edge of the tombs closest to the street was bounded by a ten-foot brick wall containing tomb markers that indicated the owners of the tombs below. The large above-ground double row of tombs that is currently standing in the western part of the site did not exist then.

In September 1804, after two incidents of previously interred bodies being disturbed during new burials at Copp’s Hill and Central Burying Grounds, the Selectmen’s attention was once again drawn to the crowded state of these sites. In both these cases, the gravedigger had dug up a perfectly sound coffin and dispersed the remains of the bodies found within them. The Selectmen ordered inspections of Central and Copp’s Hill Burying Grounds to determine if there was enough space to continue with burials. They determined that there was enough space in both these sites provided that the burial spot was carefully chosen. Upon investigation it was found that the same gravedigger was responsible for both incidents. In his defense the gravedigger stated that “he had been much pressed for time & could not begin to dig in another place after he had found the spot he had chosen was occupied.” The Selectmen decided to revoke his license as a gravedigger and funeral porter.

More concerns about overcrowded grounds and the unhealthiness of in-town burials continued to be raised in town and selectmen’s meetings over the next decade. In 1810 the Board of Public Health assumed control over the burying grounds, ushering in new regulations in an attempt to impose order and higher standards on interments and funerals. New requirements for recording deaths and burials were also enacted. The same year a new burying ground opened on Boston Neck (now Washington Street in the South End).

HBGI common watercolor
This watercolor drawing of Boston Common from 1768 shows the different uses of the large public park next to the newly opened Central Burying Ground: animals grazing, military troops training, and people promenading in the Tremont Street Mall (bottom of image).

Increasing population density in central Boston led to increasing traffic on the local roads which had been laid out to deal with the population of a smaller town. At the same time local residents began looking to public spaces like the Boston Common not for grazing of livestock but for enjoying nature and recreating. The Tremont Street Mall, made up of three long rows of trees, had been slowly planted on the Tremont Street side of the Common between 1725 and 1784. The Beacon Street Mall and the Charles Street Mall were laid out in 1816 and 1824, respectively. In 1835 Mayor Theodore Lyman noted in an address to City Council that the wooden fence around the Common was in poor condition and needed to be replaced. The City decided that it was desirable to “upgrade” the Common and wanted to replace the dilapidated fence with a stylish, ornamental cast-iron fence. Such a fence was costly and a fund-raising campaign was started to collect large donations from the wealthy citizens that lived across the street from the Common.

HBGO boylston st 1800
HBGI 1870 map
This split image shows two views of the side of Boylston Street across from Central Burying Ground. The top image depicts a street view of the buildings that existed in 1800. Carver Street (which does not exist today) was located directly to the east of the present-day Charles Street. The Public Garden did not exist at this time. The banks of the Charles River lie just to the right of the rope walk in this view. The lower image is an excerpt from an 1870 insurance map showing the dramatic change in building density.

The Boylston Street side of the Common had several factors complicating a simple straight-line fence installation. Boylston Street was narrower than it is today and was not straight. Two rows of tombs jutted out to the edge of the street with a 10-foot brick wall at the outer edge of the tombs. Business owners wanted a wider, straight road for more efficient transportation and the wealthy residents who lived across the street from the burying ground complained the wall was blocking their view. If a fence were installed around that configuration, it would take space away from an already narrow street. However, the owners of the tombs in the way of the fence did not want to disturb their dead and lose their burial rights. Starting in 1836, the fence was erected on Beacon, Park, Tremont, and part of Boylston Streets up to the burying ground.

HBGI long masonry
The long masonry structure above is the tomb structure for the reinterred remains from the tombs removed from Boylston Street in order to install the Boylston Street Mall.

In the meantime, the City government approached individual tomb owners and offered them three possibilities in exchange for giving up their tomb: a lot at the new and fashionable Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, a new tomb in the row of granite tombs the city was building at the west end of the burying ground with continued burial rights, or $150. Many tomb owners chose to have the remains moved to the new tombs within Central Burying Ground. The tombs of those who opted for the cash payment were sealed with the crypt remaining intact and the remains left inside them. The tombs where the remains were removed were dismantled. Two tomb owners, Samuel May and Thomas Holland, held out against the City, refusing to give up their burial rights. Mr. May eventually accepted the deal after being subject to public pressure but Mr. Holland continued to hold out. According to a letter written in 1894 by Samuel McCleary to the Secretary of the Boston Transit Commission, Mr. Holland was noted for his “imperious obstinacy.” After the Mayor suggested that his tomb be hermetically closed without disturbing its contents, Mr. Holland said he “would stand at the door of this tomb with a drawn sword before it should be closed, or the bones of his ancestors removed!” Eventually, in 1837, Mr. Holland accepted the offer of a new tomb within the grounds and 69 tombs were officially “discontinued.”

Boylston Street was then widened, the cast-iron fence going around the Common was extended in a straight line along the street, and two rows of trees were planted. This landscaping created a walking mall where Bostonians could promenade on a wide pathway between the trees. A double row of 60 above-ground tombs was erected in the western section of the site to replace the defunct crypts. Each side had 30 tombs and the end tombs were double width. The end tomb at the north end of the structure was owned by the City of Boston to use for burial of the indigent. The tombs were built of granite block, with sandstone capstones and cast iron, hinged, tomb doors. Grass covered the top of the tomb structure. Soils removed from the area from the construction of tombs served as fill for construction of the malls on the Common and Charles Street.

After the Common fencing was completed, the residents who lived across the street from Central Burying Ground began to notice that the burying ground looked forlorn and old fashioned, not up to the new standards set by Mount Auburn Cemetery which strove to create a naturalistic setting where urban dwellers could mourn their dead and escape the city. According to the minutes of the Boston Aldermen, “A number of gentleman owners of tombs in Central BG and dwelling houses adjacent to the same are willing to subscribe liberally for the purpose of erecting a handsome iron fence around said grounds provided the City will pay a part of the expenses and ornament it with a variety of trees.” Private donors contributed $1,850 to this project. The fence around the burying ground was erected in 1839 and in 1840 the extraordinary quantity of 172 trees and 186 shrubs were planted. As a reference, there are 19 trees standing in the burying ground today. This fence around the burying ground is still standing although the section of the Common fence on Boylston Street in front of the burying ground was removed sometime in the 20th century.

HBGI subway dig
This photo from April 1895 shows the beginning of excavations for the subway in front of Central Burying Ground. The discontinued underground brick tombs are seen in the excavated areas. A crowd of people is gathered outside the fence watching the work.

The dead rested tranquilly in Central Burying Ground for the next 45 years until new technology in the form of the subway disturbed the peaceful site. The first subway in the nation ran along Boylston Street in front of Central Burying Ground, right under the Boylston Street Mall. In order to accommodate the subterranean tunnel, any remaining tombs from the double row running under the Mall needed to be removed. Excavations started at the end of 1894. Realizing that human remains would be unearthed, the contractor, Jones & Meeham, hired Dr. Samuel Green, a librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society, to be in charge of insuring the respectful reinternment of the bones. An undertaker was hired to perform the reinternments. The number of human remains found was much greater than originally anticipated. Work crews dug a hole in the burying ground to accommodate the found human remains, which were placed in small boxes.

HBGI subway headstone
This headstone marks the mass grave for the remains that were disinterred from Boylston Street during the installation of the subway tunnel.

The hole had to be enlarged when more bodies were discovered. Bodies were found in various conditions: inside undisturbed tombs, outside of tombs laid flat, outside of tombs in piles, and scattered about. In a report on the care of human remains, Dr. Green explained that some tombs had been found partially collapsed, with masonry debris and human remains inside. He stated “It was evident such tombs had been used for the reception of bones that had been disturbed in the surrounding ground when the mall was built.” There are several newspaper accounts of tomb owners approaching workmen on site, asking them to spare the tomb and leave their ancestors’ remains, to be allowed to take their ancestors’ remains with them, or in one case, to keep the story of the discovery of their ancestors’ remains out of the newspapers. Bostonians were both fascinated and repulsed by the subway works and the unearthing of so many bones. Crowds gathered for hours every day in order to observe the work. In total, it was estimated that 90 bodies were taken from undisturbed tombs and 820 bodies were discovered in other circumstances. A gravestone was put up to mark the spot of the mass grave of the displaced.

The installation of the subway was the last disfiguring event to happen at Central Burying Ground. The above ground tomb structure started to suffer from structural problems in the 20th century. A tomb stabilization project costing $12,000 took place in 1985. Ten years later a multi-year full-scale restoration project costing $450,000 took place. The tomb is currently in good condition now and other preservation projects continue to take place in the site.

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