Bring Out Your Dead!

Copp’s Hill Burying Ground

We visited a graveyard on Halloween, but not just any cemetery, Copp’s Hill, the second oldest in Boston. It was chock full of revolutionary spirit. What could go wrong? It had been a long day, what with first visiting Harvard, crashing the Red Sox parade and then walking the Freedom Trail through North Boston. Copp’s Hill is the physical highpoint of that trail. From its grounds, one can see Bunker Hill to the north, the Old North Church and modern Boston’s city center. Founded in 1659, it continued to accept new customers until 1825.

Of the headstones in this burying-ground, most are adorned with one of three symbols. The winged skull is the most common carving found on gravestones in Copp’s Hill. Around 80% of the headstones are adorned with the death’s-head. It is a symbol of death and mortality that has been used since medieval times. The prevalence of winged skull type symbols reflect the early date of this graveyard and the Puritan religious influence of that time. The winged face or cherub, also called a soul effigy, is a more genial symbol common from the mid-18th century. There are fewer winged face designs at Copp’s Hill than at other colonial cemeteries, suggesting a more conservative clientele in the North End. The urn-and-willow design became popular after the American Revolution. The urn is a classical symbol associated with death and the weeping willow indicates mourning and sorrow.

In the mid-19th century, paths were added to the burying grounds. To facilitate their construction the remaining headstones were lined up into rows, detaching many stones from the graves that they were made to mark. I suspect that only the groundskeepers were happy with this development.

Both Anne and I have been feeling our own mortality as of late. I started coming down with a cold near the end of our stay in Boston and Anne caught it too, but fortunately not until after the election. We have been commiserating with each other, while lying low, read lots of coughing, sneezing and blowing of noses. At times, I am reminded of this bit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

The Dead Collector: Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!
Peasant 3: Here you are, here’s your ninepence.
The Dead Body That Claims It Isn’t: I’m not dead!
The Dead Collector: Hang on, he says he’s not dead!
Peasant 3: Yes he is.
The Dead Body That Claims It Isn’t: I’m not!

5 thoughts on “Bring Out Your Dead!

  1. In graduate school I had to do some cemetery/archival work, related to the novel The Coquette (often said to be the first American novel written by a woman). In the old cemeteries I was in outside Boston I swear just about ever gravestone had the winged skull. I’m from the West coast, where in general gravestones aren’t as old, and it really surprised me. I’d never seen it before and it was BEYOND common. So interesting to see that pop up here!

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