PHOTOS: Travel Back in Time: Wakefield's Old Burying Ground
Wakefield's early history comes to life with a visit to the Old Burying Ground, located on Church Street, adjacent to the First Parish Congregational Church.
Wakefield was first settled beginning in 1639 when a group of colonists from Lynn sought permission to establish an ‘inland plantation’ called Lynn End or Lynn Village. In 1644, when seven houses had been built and seven families had settled, permission was given to establish an official town, which was called Redding.
The area was vast, and encompassed the present towns of Wakefield, Reading and North Reading, but all of the original settlements were in the current town of Wakefield. In 1812, Wakefield officially separated from Reading, and incorporated as the town of South Reading (re-naming itself Wakefield in 1868), but its roots stretch into the seventeenth century.
Very little that is man-made is left of those first brave settlers who came here to establish a new life for themselves and their families. Only two seventeenth century structures remain: 41 Church Street (the Hartshorne House, built before 1681) and 391 Vernon Street (the earliest section built in Lynnfield in the 1600s and moved to its Wakefield location in 1750).
And yet, lying in dusty profusion in a field adjacent to Lake Quannapowitt, are hundreds of testaments to the town’s early settlers. The gravestones that carry their names constitute no less than an outdoor museum where visitors can slice through hundreds of years and come face to face with the town’s early Puritan past.
A Walk Amongst The Graves
Begin your trip into Wakefield’s past by noticing the 1644 date on the façade of the stone church adjacent to the Common. Although this is the fifth structure to serve as the First Parish Church, it’s important to note that the roots of this congregation stretch directly back to the first settlers of the ancient town of Redding.
The first meetinghouse was located around the junction of Main and Albion Streets; the first graveyard for the town of Redding was actually on the Common, adjacent to and probably under the town’s iconic Bandstand. Our “Old Burying Ground” was established in 1689 after the community built a new meetinghouse at the approximate location of today’s Congregational Church. The gravestones nearest to the church are probably in their original location, but the same is not the case for at about 200 of the gravestones at the far edge of the Old Burying Ground.
Travel down the path now known as the “Floral Way,” planted in honor of Wakefield’s servicemen in 1948. You’ll pass an ancient tomb whose heavy iron doors sometimes (creepily) gape open. Don’t be afraid: the tomb has no present occupants. It was built to receive the town’s dead during the winter months when the ground was too icy and hard to dig graves.
At the far end of the graveyard, you will see two hundred year old Sweetser tomb, holding the ancestors of one of the town’s benefactors, Cornelius Sweetser. As you look toward the lake, you will notice that the graves at the edge of the cemetery are set in graceful arcs, very different from the confusion of the remainder of the burying ground. These gravestones (and, allegedly, the bodies to which they testify) were moved from their ancient resting place behind the church to the erstwhile town pound, which occupied this space 200 years ago. In 1950, the town deeded the church the land behind the building to be used as a parking lot, which required moving the gravestones. The new layout of these gravestones was designed by prominent local architect Harland A. Perkins.
As you stroll along this arch toward the lake, notice the different styles of these gravestones, from the finely milled slate stones of the late eighteenth century (often featuring weeping willow trees) to the marble monuments of the early nineteenth century. Among the transplanted stones is the monument to Dr. John Hart, a Revolutionary War surgeon who was unquestionably one of the most prominent men in the town’s history. Hart’s large marble monument is engraved with a list of his accomplishments. Unfortunately, it has stained and "sugared" with time, making it difficult to read.
A few steps from Dr. Hart’s gravestone lies a straight line of very old slate stones, identified by an interpretive marker. Here lie the remains of the gravestones from that first cemetery on the present day Common, where hundreds of men, women and children were buried from 1644 to 1772 (Although the Old Burying Ground was established in 1689, the original graveyard on the common was still being used into the 1770s). Records show that the gravestones lying here were moved once when the Town House was built on the common in 1834, and moved again in the 1930s. In this one continuous line of early slate gravestones can be found a marvelous testament to both the individuals that they memorialize and to the craftsmen that created them.
In the 1600s, any representation of the spirit world was considered sinful in Puritan New England. The earliest settlers were buried with either simple rocks as headstones or perhaps wooden markers that would disintegrate with age. But in the 1670s, it became important to memorialize one’s loved ones with symbols of transformation and religion, from the winged skull (symbolizing the death of the body and the transcendence of the soul); to symbols of communion in the form of grapes, vines and gourds; to the iconography of death in the form of picks, axes and tombs.
So forbidden were these early gravestone embellishments that the artist that created most of them was anonymous and known only as the “Charlestown Carver.” In Wakefield’s Old Burying Ground are many of his most compelling works, from the earliest stone, that of Jonathon Poole in 1678, to the elegantly carved winged skull on the stone of John Person (1679).
Here in this row are the gravestones of many of the town’s most important personages, from miller and captain of the town’s regiment Jonathon Poole, to Deacon Thomas Parker, whose descendant captained forces at the battles of Lexington and Concord, to John Brown, who signed the Indian Deed on the town’s behalf, and who would testify in the witchcraft trials in 1692. Last but not least is the gravestone of the last person to have been buried on the Common: little Joshua Gould, whose 1772 gravestone inscription reads: Not 4 year old before I found/ a watery Grave, where I was drown’d. (He drowned in the Great Pond, now known as Lake Quannapowitt.)
It’s a pleasant afternoon’s ramble to walk through the remainder of the Burying Ground, noting the changes in the styles of the gravestones as one passes through. This graveyard was considered full when the Lakeside Cemetery was established in 1846, but interments into family plots continued in the Old Burying Ground into the twentieth century. Some eighteenth century gravestones were moved to family plots at the Lakeside Cemetery, but, although nearly a thousand markers or monuments survive in the Old Burying Ground, it is estimated that hundreds more have been lost to time and the elements. Here are some markers to search for:
- The flag-marked marble stone memorializing brothers Sylvester and Warren Aborn, both killed in the Civil War
- Markers from the town’s soldiers in the Revolutionary War, and the settlers from the Revolutionary War time period, many of which are grouped near the Floral Way path and around the Town Tomb. In particular, look for General Benjamin Brown, whose slate stone features a carved angel of unparalleled sweetness.
- Early graves marked by headstones and footstones, in the custom of the day, like those at the grave of Josiah Nurse, whose grandmother Rebecca had been a victim of the Salem Witchcraft hysteria in 1692.
- The gravestone of the unfortunate Thomas Underwood whose monument was swallowed up by a tree (thus earning him a place in Ripley’s Believe it or Not.)
- The grave marker of Jeremiah Sweyen, doctor and notable soldier during the French and Indian Wars, whose gravestone lies under a tree close to the church, where the graves – and the gravestones – are in their original positions.
- Finally, find the gravestone that is considered by scholars to be one of the finest examples of Puritan Gravestone Art. This is the gravestone of minister Jonathon Pierpont, whose stone was sculpted by master craftsman Joseph Lamson and his son Nathaniel. Many of Lamson’s works are to be found in Wakefield’s Old Burying Ground, possibly because his mother married Thomas Hartshorne when Joseph was three years old; he and his seven siblings grew up in this town.
The Wakefield Historical Commission has erected interpretive markers in the Old Burying Ground to assist visitors in finding their way through the cemetery (Be careful while walking, since many of the original stones have broken and protrude through the ground). A walk through the Old Burying Ground will bring the casual visitor the ability to take a fresh look at Wakefield’s history, and to remember those long lost settlers that made their homes here over 300 years ago.