By Michael Maler
Many people visit Boston’s historic burying grounds to see the monuments of historical figures like Cotton Mather, Prince Hall, Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, Crispus Attucks, Samuel Sewall, and John Hancock. But few pause to read the inscriptions on the stones of other early “everyday” Bostonians, whose names and lives are now long forgotten. For those who take the time to look closely, these gravestones convey highly personal messages that not only reveal a glimpse into their personal lives, but also the literature that they read, the hymns they sang, and the poetry that moved them. These stones also can tell us a great deal about our forebears’ attitudes towards life, death, and eternity.
But like much of history, there is meaning to be found in not only what is present, but also what is absent.
Black Bostonians Prince Hall, Abel Barbados, Mary Augustus, Sarah Ritchie, and Margaret Colley are the five Black Bostonians buried in Copp’s Hill who have grave markers. No marker exists for Phillis Wheatley and her husband John Peters, who are purportedly buried there. Wheatley enjoyed celebrity status for a brief time and aided in the American Revolution effort with poems and published letters, but most likely wasn’t able to earn enough money to afford a headstone. The great irony here is that her own written verse can be found inscribed at King’s Chapel Burying Ground, and her enslavers, John and Susanna Wheatley, are interred at the Granary Burying Ground just up the street.
The stones at Copp’s Hill Burying Ground are home to at least four Isaac Watts hymns, three Charles Wesley hymns, and one by John Newton (who wrote “Amazing Grace”). In addition to the hymns, there is wonderful poetry as well, including work by Anna Letitia Barbauld, Alexander Pope, Thomas Gray, and Edward Young. And some really wonderful original compositions by “once-known” but now anonymous early Bostonians.
If you want to know more about Boston’s early burying ground epitaphs, you’re in luck. On Oct. 22, Old North Illuminated and Crescendo Productions are presenting “The Stones Cry Out,” a program that combines a presentation by historian and author John Hanson accompanied with a live performance of hymns. And in case you want to dig a little deeper into the topic (pun intended), Old North Church has now opened its crypt for tours after a nine-month restoration project. The program takes place at the Old North Church and is free, with an optional donation. Reservations are recommended, and can be made on oldnorth.com, crescendoproductions.com, or Eventbrite.