Nestled unobtrusively between a church and bustling Massachusetts Avenue lies the Old Burial Grounds, established in 1635.
Visitors can find the graves of eight Harvard presidents, nineteen Revolutionary War soldiers (including the slave soldiers Neptune Frost and Cato Stedman), wealthy aristocrats, poor farmers, and everyone in between. The earliest burial locations were not permanently marked, and it is believed that the cemetery contains many more remains than are in the 1,218 known plots.
The tombstones themselves reflect the changing cultural history of Cambridge. The earliest stones are marked with a “Death’s Head,” a winged, grinning skull of medieval origin which corresponds to the Puritan influence on late seventeenth century Massachusetts society. As the spirituality of the great awakenings swept through New England in the eighteenth century, winged cherubs replaced the death’s heads on grave stones. And in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century, as society embraced the enlightenment themes of intellectualism and scientific research, tombstones were adorned with an urn and drooping willow, a less spiritualized image of death.
Regular burials in the Old Burial Grounds ended in 1811 with the construction of a new cemetery in Cambridgeport, but the antiquated graveyard in Harvard Square remains a memorial to colonial life in New England and an example of the remarkable history that infuses the streets and squares of Boston with a uniquely historic charm.
Know Before You Go
On the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Garden Street, in Harvard Square