King’s Chapel Burying Ground is separated from the pedestrian sidewalk by a high fence, whose gate was locked at the time I was there in 2007. Not something that would normally thwart me from tip-toeing among the tombstones, but there were so many people around that it felt a bit uncool to do so. I made these photos through the bars.
King's Chapel is still an active (Unitarian) church, originally founded in 1686 as the first Anglican Church in New England during the reign of King James II. The original King's Chapel was a wooden church built here at the corner of Tremont and School Streets, where the stone church stands today. (Wikipedia tells us that) it was situated on the public burying ground because no resident would sell land for a non-Puritan church.
– Latin for "the hour is fleeting."
The graveyard has quite an assortment of ‘skull and crossbones’ type headstones, which are prevalent in New England. You really don’t see such carvings in this quantity anywhere else in the United States. Lest those of us who live outside New England feel slighted, we have far more Victorian garden cemeteries than they do! There are just not many angels or statue and monument-intensive cemeteries in New England, with the exception of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts (America’s first rural garden cemetery, patterned after Pere Lachaise in Paris).
|Cherub head, Mt. Auburn Cemetery|
|Skull and crossbones|
And speaking of tombstone inscriptions…
A few years after visiting Boston, while reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), I was surprised to find out his inspiration for the novel came from a stone in King’s Chapel Burying Ground. Supposedly, there’s a headstone inscribed with a script letter “A” which certain people take to indicate 'adultery.' I took some liberties with the photo at the beginning of this article − this is a stone from a cemetery in Delaware.The real headstone was that of Elizabeth Pain, the model for Hawthorne’s adulterous Hester Prynne, which you see in the photo below. Pain's headstone has an engraved coat of arms in which the letter 'A' appears in the shield to the right of two lions.
|Elizabeth Pain Headstone (ref.)|
King's Chapel Burying Ground is actually mentioned in the final paragraph of The Scarlet Letter:
So said Hester Prynne, and glanced her sad eyes downward at the scarlet letter. And, after many, many years, a new grave was delved, near an old and sunken one, in that burial–ground beside which King’s Chapel has since been built. It was near that old and sunken grave, yet with a space between, as if the dust of the two sleepers had no right to mingle. Yet one tomb–stone served for both. All around, there were monuments carved with armorial bearings; and on this simple slab of slate—as the curious investigator may still discern, and perplex himself with the purport—there appeared the semblance of an engraved escutcheon. It bore a device, a herald’s wording of which may serve for a motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so sombre is it, and relieved only by one ever–glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow:— “ON A FIELD, SABLE, THE LETTER A, GULES” - The Scarlet Letter, Nathanial Hawthorne
|Sam Bellamy's Jolly Roger flag (ref.)|
Even if you're not a huge fan of history, Boston is well worth a visit. They've got a great hockey team and more private ice cream parlors and doughnut shops per capita than any city in America! And with Mount Auburn Cemetery just a couple miles from the center of town, what's not to like?
King's Chapel Website
King's Chapel Burying Ground
Expedition Wydah, by Barry Clifford