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Cemeteries and Symbology: The Old Burial Ground in Cambridge

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Molly is currently a student studying Earth Science, English, and Studio Art.

Have You Visited The Old Burial Ground?

The Old Burial Ground, located in Cambridge, MA, was created in 1635. For two hundred years, it was the only cemetery in Cambridge.

At first glance, the vast majority of the headstones in the cemetery look identical: thin, gray, rectangular stones with scalloped shoulders and a brief inscription. However, the markers reveal much more about the history of society in the area from the 17th through the early 19th centuries. This paper will examine the three most notable symbols engraved on these headstones: the winged skull, the cherub, and the willow and urn, and demonstrate what these motifs tell us about the evolution of religion, society, and beliefs about the dead.

Massachusetts was heavily dominated by Puritan beliefs in the 1600s. During the first hundred or so years of the Old Burial Ground’s existence, which coincided with pervasive Puritanical values, most if not all headstones in the cemetery were engraved with a winged skull (Image A). According to James Deetz, this design was meant to be an “earthly and neutral symbol, serving as a graphic reminder of death…” (Deetz 71). Puritans often associated iconography with Catholicism, therefore they did not use religious imagery on their headstones. The winged skull, thus, is quite literal: the skull is a direct graphic representation and a reminder of death and mortality. The wings represent the flight to heaven. The literalism of the winged skull demonstrates the Puritan’s beliefs towards death; they thought it a natural occurrence in which a person transformed from their flesh form to the spiritual. The skull is the flesh, and the wings are the spiritual ‘flight’ to the afterlife. Past the winged skull, there is a simple engraving of the name, birth, death, and age of the deceased. There is little to no variation in these headstones; they clearly show the Puritans’ commitment to values such as tradition, simplicity, and their belief in death as merely a step into the afterlife.

The winged cherub is the next engraving, beginning in the early 18th century (Image B). Clearly a religious icon, this symbol represents the societal departure from Puritanism and evolution in terms of how death is viewed. The time period in which the cherub appears aligns perfectly with the Great Awakening, which began in the early 1700s and lasted about half a century. This religious revivalist movement heavily emphasized salvation, which directly opposed the Puritans’ strong belief in predestination (Campbell). The cherub imagery thus reflects this liberal change; the cherub’s face indicates a positive and soothing flight to the afterlife, as well as rebirth in heaven, as opposed to the grim reminder of death through a skull. Furthermore, the headstones from this era also include much more detailed descriptions of the deceased. The marker shown in Image B recounts how Ann Ellery was “…sensible and…sprightly and agreeable…hospitable…sincere & pious.” This is a significant change from the earlier headstones, which said little more than the name and relevant dates of the deceased. This new style gives much more individuality to each headstone as well as allows friends and family to remember those who died. It also emphasizes the person’s life instead of their afterlife, showing that both aspects of the person’s journey were important.

The last major symbol in the Old Burial Ground is that of the willow and the urn, which gained popularity in the early 19th century. The motif can be largely attributed to the Greek Revivalist movement which occurred around this time (Iconography of Gravestones). The willow, as seen in Image C, is a weeping willow. This symbol most obviously represents the mourning and grieving of the friends and family of the deceased. This change is quite significant as it emphasizes the living instead of the dead. Furthermore, the willow is a part of nature, and may also represent dying as a natural part of life. The urn next to the willow, a Roman storage unit for ashes, is simply a representation of the dead. This image, in addition to emphasizing the grief of the living, also marks a step away from religion and towards secular representation. The cherub was clearly a religious symbol, while the willow and urn contain no references to Western religion whatsoever. The words on the headstones also change: in Image C, for example, the headstone features poetry beneath the name and date of the deceased. The inscription notes how Mrs. Rebecca W. is “from sin releas’d / Exempt from sorrow… and pain / …our loss is all thy gain,” (Image C). Although this epitaph does contain religious references, it is quite flowery and ‘feel-good’. Instead of simply listing her positive traits, the poem artistically describes what Rebecca may gain from death as well as referencing the loss that her friends and family feel.

The Old Burial Ground is full of history: from the three common motifs featured on the headstones in the cemetery, one can clearly trace the evolution of religion, society, and beliefs towards death in the area. They show how the strict religious ideology of the Puritan society in the 17th century morphed into a more liberal but equally religious movement in the 18th century. Then, as secularism began to pervade society in the 19th century, the willow and urn become the dominant motifs. This paper is but a small window of what these headstones can teach us about the evolution of various beliefs and values; the history found in the Old Burial Ground is rich and waiting to be explored.

Works Cited

Campbell, Donna M. "Puritanism in New England." Literary Movements. Dept. of English, Washington State University.

Deetz, James. In Small Things Forgotten. Anchor Books, 1996.

Flying Cherub Headstone. 20 Oct. 2015

“Iconography of Gravestones at Burying Grounds.” City of Boston, City of Boston, 14 July 2016,

“Old Burial Ground.” Old Burial Ground, City of Cambridge, 2018,

Winged Skull Headstone. 20 Oct. 2015.

Willow and Urn Headstone. 20 Oct. 2015.