On a cold and cloudless Sunday afternoon, in the spacious sanctuary of the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, the Reverend Robert M. Hardies is giving the Easter sermon. Through the windows, distracted parishioners can look out onto the Old Burying Ground, where volunteers are busy scattering rainbow plastic eggs for the annual Easter egg hunt. The theme of this year’s sermon is “Finding the Living Among the Dead.”
Hardies asks his congregation to look for “hope amidst despair, beauty amidst brokenness” — in other words, to look for life where it seems like there is none.
“This is the work of resurrection,” he says. He acknowledges the cemetery egg hunt is a little on the nose, and a chorus of laughs rises from the pews.
The Old Burying Ground, the oldest surviving graveyard in Cambridge, is a fixture of Harvard Square, yet mundane in its connection to the rest of the Cambridge landscape — turn right at the cemetery and you’ll find a Dunkin’, cross the street to your left and you’ll be in the Yard. On the daily walk to and from class, most Quad residents pass by the graveyard without a second glance. In the winter, when snow blankets the ground, old headstones stick through it like rows of crooked teeth. In the early days of summer, students cut through it or sit cross-legged on raised tombs, catching up on emails and texts.
The Old Burying Ground was established by the Puritans sometime around 1635, just before the founding of Harvard College. The town’s first burying ground was abandoned after wolves repeatedly dug up remains; no trace of it has ever been found.
The cemetery saw burials for almost two centuries, the resting place of every man, woman, and child who died in Cambridge — from Harvard administrators to the people they enslaved, from unnamed babies too young to be baptized to visitors buried in the “stranger’s lot.”
Over the past two decades, efforts to maintain the cemetery have drawn together a wide swath of Cambridge residents, historians, scholars, and preservationists. But their attempts to preserve the Old Burying Ground’s historical and aesthetic legacy have given rise to an entirely new set of questions: Who gets memorialized after death, and why? What makes us devote money and manpower to the upkeep of a graveyard so old that it has faded from any lingering descendants’ memories? And what does that mean for us now?
Since 1974, Charles M. Sullivan has served as the executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission — and, by extension, as steward of the Old Burying Ground. Under his tenure, the City of Cambridge has worked to end the cycle of upkeep and neglect which, according to Sullivan, characterizes the history of the graveyard. In 2002, Sullivan hired Fannin-Lehner Preservation Consultants to assess the condition of the burying ground and embark on an ongoing restoration project.
For Minxie Jensvold Fannin and James C. Fannin, the husband-and-wife pair at the head of Fannin-Lehner, the Old Burying Ground was merely the latest chapter in a decades-long career of cemetery preservation. When Minxie Fannin, a trained architectural historian, first became interested in graveyards in the 1980s, the Boston area was littered with historic cemeteries that had largely fallen into disrepair because the cemetery trustees “had no idea how to care for them,” she says.
Caring for a cemetery this old is no simple task. The gravestones are battered by weather and pushed up by frost, cracked by falling tree branches, and sometimes damaged by vandals or clumsy tourists.
“Although they really are artistic objects and historical objects of great value, they sit out in the elements all the time,” Minxie says. Preserving the stones is like tending to an outdoor museum, one whose climate and surroundings are constantly in flux. The Fannins’ work is hard physical labor — cleaning headstones so that their inscriptions and drawings remain legible, mending broken stones with pins and epoxy, excavating and resetting tilted markers, and keeping meticulous written records of their repairs.
But the pair sees a higher purpose in their work. The tombstones are remnants of Puritan-era craftsmanship that the Fannins take pride in preserving. Many of them are painstakingly carved with images of the “death’s head” — a foreboding, winged skull, etched alongside phrases like “memento mori” (remember you must die) and “fugit hora” (the hour flies). And, beyond that, the stones represent something more intangible: the storied history of Cambridge and its famous founders.
“The stones carry a history of the town, which is still evident,” Minxie Fannin says. “Well-known families, you see their names on street signs.”
“In a way, we’re helping to preserve the history of these towns,” James Fannin says.
For Jason A. Ur, an archaeologist in the Anthropology Department, the task of preserving local history goes further than headstones — in fact, it goes beneath the surface, meters under the packed earth of the Old Burying Ground. There, Ur and his colleagues believe, lies a second class of Cantabrigians, unrecognized on street signs or Harvard buildings. Ur wants to find them.
In the back corner of the cemetery, farthest away from Harvard Square, lie the graves of three Black residents of the cemetery: a freed slave, Susan F. Lenox, and two enslaved women, Cicely and Jane, both of whom died young and were buried far from their enslavers’ families. Two freedmen, Cato Stedman and Neptune Frost, are also buried in the Old Burying Ground, though their graves are unmarked.
According to Ur, there must have been far more than these enslaved people in colonial Cambridge who would have likely been interred in the Old Burying Ground as well.
“Probably there’s a lot of people buried here that were not memorialized,” he says. “Or they were memorialized in a very different way, not with a fancy carved headstone by the Lampson family in Charlestown.”
Alongside bioarchaeologist Aja M. Lans and a team of researchers, Ur has launched a spatial analysis project to map out the seemingly barren remote reaches of the cemetery. Using radio waves, which bounce back off hidden underground objects, he predicts the team will discover the unmarked graves of Cambridge’s uncommemorated dead: enslaved people, most likely, but maybe also Native Americans and others marginalized by the town’s propertied, white community.
For our interview, Ur asks to meet me in the burying ground. Although he does his fieldwork in the Middle East, Ur became especially fascinated by the burying ground during the claustrophobic early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. After coming here for 17 years, he knows the graveyard like the back of his hand. Muscle memory guides him between familiar stones, whose carvers he often knows by name. He tells me the best time to visit is around 3 p.m., when the raking light on the headstones is “gorgeous.”
He isn’t sure what he and his team will do to recognize the unmarked dead, if they do find them.
“I don’t think we need to dig them up to reanimate them, to memorialize them,” Ur says. “For me, the production of knowledge is a form of memorialization. So I just want to know what's there.”
After the Easter Sunday sermon, I catch Hardies as he walks along the cemetery’s paths, greeting parents while their children fill their wicker baskets with eggs. He’s been thinking a lot about death, rebirth, and memory in honor of Easter, but he also mentions Cicely and Jane, who formed the topic of a sermon a few weeks ago.
“It feels like the dead are living with us still, and still make a claim on us, too,” he says. “I mean, Cicely makes a claim on us today. And we want to see how we respond to that claim.”
For Ur, Cicely’s claim demands that we tell a “fuller story” of the notable families of Cambridge and Harvard, one that doesn’t gloss over the men and women who labored for them, marginalized both in life and — as of now — in death. How the City of Cambridge chooses to memorialize those forgotten graves, he says, will be a profound reflection of the town’s current values, just as meaningful as the original decision not to mark the tombs.
“If we were to put that monument up, it wouldn’t just say, ‘there were enslaved people that were buried here,’” Ur says. “It would also say that we, in the early 21st century, felt it necessary and important to mark that fact. So it would also be talking about us.”
— Magazine writer Tamar Sarig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @tamar_sarig.