Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Interaction with Morbid Spaces: How we move & use burial grounds

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This post is a digital summary version of a paper I’d written for a course during my undergrad, and later expanded on to present at the Transmortality conference in Luxembourg in 2017. I’m choosing to turn these ideas into a blog post, because I think it’s a rather interesting topic and I’d love to have a discussion with all of you about it! So let’s dive it, shall we?

By investigation the relationship between burial spaces and their communities, we can gain insight into the personal relationship between people and death. This post will explore interaction with burial spaces and the influence of these spaces on movement throughout history, from the 17th to the 21st centuries. I looked at Boston, MA and Guilford, CT as my case studies, through historic and modern accounts of being in the burial grounds, examining the multi-purpose use of many of these early Puritan sites.


The Guilford Green, Guilford, CT (Photo by author 2016).

Burial spaces in the 17th century elicited different reactions, interactions, and emotions than they do from visitors today. Throughout the 17th century, settlers from the British Isles established in NE North America established new traditions for dealing with the placement and treatment of the dead. The relationships between space for the dead and the living depended not only on tradition and religious belied, but also on political leanings and rules imposed by colonial leadership, and sponsorship. While Puritan burials were often unconsecrated, municipally owned, burial grounds were often used to graze cattle, house other enterprises, draw laundry, amongst other things, these same spaces today are viewed through more of a ‘museum’ lens displaying the community’s history (Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation 2009:5).

Landscape and the Dead

On a basic level, a burial ground, cemetery, or graveyard, is only a deliberately segregated space reserved for the dead.However, how this space and its deceased inhabitants are perceived can change radically through time, often in irretrievable ways. Following Ingold (1993) on the temporality of landscape, we in the 21st century can never experience the central burial ground in Guilford Connecticut as Henry Whitfield did when he arrived in 1639 (Smith 1877:12), nor as Timothy Dwight when he visited in 1800 (Dwight 1823). Nevertheless, recognising the fluidity of meaning is vital to understanding the physical or spatial relationship between burial grounds and settlement from the 17th to 21st centuries.

The body acts as a placeholder, articulating the idea of belonging within a landscape. In North America, the idea of a forever grave is far more prevalent than in many western European Countries, which recycle burial spaces after bodies have decomposed for a determined period of time, such as Luxembourg. The importance for such a concept in North America comes through in several news articles proclaiming that the continent is ‘running out of burial space’, likely stems from the immigrant history of much of the population. A body in the ground, a history of one’s family buried in the landscape, enacts a feeling of colonialist ownership and belonging within the space.

Discussing Colonial Burial Landscapes


A portion of the 1881 George Lamb map of Boston showing the King’s Chapel Burial Ground, redrawn from the Boston Book of Possessions, 1640. Map is housed at the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Centre at the Boston Public Library

To explore these relationships of meaning and agency in colonial New England, I combined spatial analysis of known burial grounds with archival research and contemporary ethnography. The early 17th century was pivotal in the development of colonial America; new settlements no longer had to conform to imposed town plans and central political or religious authority. For example, Puritan-founded settlements such as Boston, New Haven, and Guilford chose to defy the strictures of the Anglican Church and through actions such as separating the dead from the established church, used the dead for explicit political statements (Hopkins 2014).

My earlier research (Lacy 2017) has shown that 41.5% of settlements surveyed on the east coast during the 17th century placed their burial grounds in a central location, with 65.1% of sites not being physically associated with a church or meeting house.

Central Burial Grounds as Morbid Spaces

Guilford, Connecticut from the 17th to the 21st Century

Founded by a group of Puritans in 1639, Guilford is famous today for its ‘well preserved village green [as the] chief attraction’ (Purdon 2002; Sexton 2002:1). It was based on New Haven, Connecticut, which was established with an open and central green for markets, burials, and structures (Smith 1877:37; Bloomer 1994:58). For the first few years, Guilford Green looked much the same as it does today with a large, central park space containing no buildings; until the settlement joined the New Haven colony for protection in 1642 and was forced to construct a meeting house in the northwest corner of the Green to act as a church, no buildings were constructed on the space (Bloomer 1994:58).

In the 17th century, Guilford was a small farming community situated near the Atlantic Ocean. With the burial ground in the centre of town, it is likely that the people of the early settlement shared the Puritan mindset for simplification of death and burial. The space was meant for burials, but was also a multi-use taskscape for leisure and grazing livestock. Though municipally owned, it was unbounded and people and animals could traverse it without hindrance, making use of the space in many ways.  There may have been well-travelled routes across the space, but it is unlikely that any formal pathways were created, due to the open nature and multi-use intention of the Green during this period.

When Timothy Dwight, an academic who visited Guilford in the early 1800s, he lamented of the town that,

“This square, like that in New Haven, is deformed by a burying ground, and to add to the deformity, is unenclosed. Instead of producing those solemn thoughts, and encouraging those moral propensities, which it was intended to inspire it renders death and the grave such familiar objects to the eye, as to prevent them from awakening any serious regard… Nor is it unreasonable to suppose, that the proximity of these sepulchral fields to human habitations is injurious to health.”(Dwight 1823:513).

A few years later, Dwight’s editor noted, this ‘injurious’ space was corrected by a fence that enclosed the burial ground, putting to an end nearly 200 years of unhindered movement and interaction. What had once been the heart of the settlement, uninhibited to visitors, was now a closed, separated, and morally acceptable ‘death’ space where mortality could be seriously contemplated. Dwight’s opinions mirrored a wider shift in American life and attitudes towards death which resulted in the garden cemetery, a defining characteristic of the 19th-century burial landscape, and towards pushing death out of direct view (Ames 1981; Curl 2001; Worpole 2003). This trend may have also have prompted the town to finally act on their 1793 directive to remove evidence of the settlers from the green, and with that, erase the early burial landscape. By 1817, all of the headstones from Guilford Green had been relocated to a new burial space farther from town and the uneven ground, a result of decomposing coffins and corpses, was levelled by 1824 (Smith 1877:37-38; Bloomer 1994:60; Sexton 2002:4).


King’s Chapel Burial Ground, Boston, MA (Photo by author 2016).

Today, the Guilford Green retains elements of both its 17th- and 19th-century heritage. There are still no headstones, but the 19th-century fence and all the buildings that used to stand around the public space have been moved to adjacent streets in what is now the symbolic heart of the town (Sexton 2002). As it did in the 17th century, the open space extends through the centre of the historic town, although today its flat surface is crossed by paths and lined by trees, and dotted with a number of small signs describing the town’s early history. When I visited the site in 2015, tourists and locals walked both around and across the Green, interacting with the space in ways they may not if they were aware it was a burial ground full of human remains. There is no mention of the burial ground’s existence on any of the historic signs around the space (personal observation 2015; Dee 1998), and indeed this allows 21st century people who may find their actions inhibited by a burial landscape to interact with the beautiful, open, public space. While books mentioning the town’s history touch on the role of the burial ground in the Green’s past, a passerby would have no way of knowing that the earth there, holds the towns early settlers. Perhaps this ignorance allows for a more authentic experience linked to a Puritan multi-use of the space.

Boston, Massachusetts, from the 17th to 21st Century

Boston is known as the principal settlement of the fledgling Massachusetts Bay Company at the beginning of the Great Migration of 1630. Boston has three 17th-century burial grounds in the heart of the city, all of which are still visible amidst the urban landscape that surrounds them today. King’s Chapel Burying Ground (1630), Copp’s Hill (1659), and The Granary (1660) had no physical association to a church, and were municipally owned and operated, non-consecrated spaces, where use of the Book of Common Prayer was prohibited (Stannard 1977; Hopkins 2014).

Records kept by Dr. Samuel Sewall, the famous judge and diarist, mention the death of Governor Winthrop (the Younger), on 5th April, 1676, and describes only that he was interred at the old Burying Place, now known as King’s Chapel Burying Ground, on the next Monday (Sewall 1676 [1878]). This description is similar to that of Nathanial Morton (1669) when he discussed the respectable but not overtly ceremonious civil burial of John Winthrop (the Elder). As in Guilford, the early burial grounds in Boston were also used to pasture cattle and would have been traversed easily without churchyard etiquette, a practice not seen in England’s consecrated grounds (Hopkins, 2014, p. 17).


The Granary, Boston, MA (Photo by author, 2016).

In 1697, Sewall (454) wrote of the death of his tutor, Mr. Graves, and how after the burial (which was not described), a man named Mr. Morton sat on a tomb and remarked that ‘he knew he should be next’. Cotton Mather, the Puritan minister, pamphleteer, and supporter of the Salem Witch Trials, refers to this concept in his 1713 essay on the Christian funeral, stating that ‘Truly, When we see a Coffin, perhaps of our own Dimensions, it becomes us to be very Serious.’ These reflections, coupled with the use of mortality symbols on gravestones then gaining popularity into the late 17th and 18th centuries, shows that within the burial ground an individual could reflect on their own mortality, even if the burial landscape itself wasn’t considered of the same religious significance as it may have been in the British Isles.

Into the 19th century, Boston’s burial grounds had become re-associated with churches, as the Anglican government sought to take over these Puritan spaces.

Today, Boston’s 17th-century burial grounds are official sites on the ‘Freedom Trail’, the most active and well-established self-guided sightseeing tour of historic sites in the city. Copp’s Hill, in the north downtown area, is enclosed, dotted with interpretive signs, and well maintained. Visitors often stopped outside the gates to read the plaques before slowly entering, displaying a passive, and tourist interaction with a space inscribed as a historic resting place. The site interpretation is divided by time period, and groups of tourists follow the trails created between the rows of headstones, rarely straying onto the grassed areas as the 17th-century inhabitants would have done.

In contrast to the park-like setting of Copp’s Hill, King’s Chapel Burying Ground is in a pocket of space between buildings, nearly devoid of natural light, and dominated by the chapel which has claimed part of its grounds (Figure 3). The same restricted movement along prescribed paths also occurs, yet visitors congregated in larger groups than at Copp’s Hill, spoke in softer voices, and less frequently crossed the threshold of the entrance area. A large sign reading ‘Please stay on paths unless necessary’ immediately restricts interaction with this space, but so too does the small space filled with headstones with grinning skulls which made the landscape’s purpose all the more apparent.


Gravestone at Copp’s Hill with many memento mori images (photo by author 2016).

The Granary is today the most-visited and famous of the city’s historic burial grounds. Here movement is not only restricted to suggested paths but further limited by low chain railings around each manicured plot of graves, creating a controlled, gallery-like atmosphere. Restricting movement throughout this space supports preservation of the historic gravestones and spaces within the growing city, but also curates the landscape and sensationalises the dead as a tourist attraction.

Discussion and Conclusions

Access to these spaces, and the ability to interact with burial landscapes was therefore vital to the society. This is evident in the accounts of people who lived alongside the early burial grounds. Sewall lamented that his late tutor’s reading of the Book of Common Prayers ‘bread [sic] himself and others a great deal of Trouble’ (1697 [1878]:454), as it challenged many Puritan traditions. Similarly, he and his fellow Puritans in New England would have been appalled at the building of churches in association with municipal burial spaces in the 19th century, and possibly more so at the sensationalizing of their burial grounds in the 21st century. So, while central burial grounds in early 17th century had multiple purposes and were unrestricted, they were still governed by a moral and social code.

As the case studies demonstrated, fences around 17th-century burial grounds were sometimes constructed during the 19th century due to worry over the sites being ‘unbounded’ and in view at all times. This was a deliberate action to limit the exposure of the people to the burial landscape. In the 21st century, however, we can see that this purpose has flipped, limiting exposure and interaction of the burial space to the people. Though still active agents in the 21st-century landscape, they are conceptualised in the present in ways that contradicts their original design; the modern tourist sticks to a limited path, while the 17th-century visitor could pass through to either visit the grave of a loved one, tend livestock, or simply cross the space. The reservations of visitors today reflects the aversion to death that has developed since the 19th century (Mitford, 1963), although the rise of dark tourism provides a way to reconnect with the idea of mortality as experienced on the burial landscape. In this way, the burial landscape speaks to the agency the dead still enact over the living, influencing visitor movement through their spaces, whether the 17th century, or the 21st.



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Bloomer, N. (1994). Guilford, Connecticut – The Guilford Green. Places Journal, 9, 56 – 65. Retrieved from

Curl, J. S. (2000, Reprint: 2001). The Victorian Celebration of Death. Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing

Dee, J. (1998, October 31). Bones Beneath Your Feet: Unmarked Graves Might Be Closer Than You Think. Hartford Courant, Collections. Retrieved from

Dwight, T. (1823). Travels in New England and New York, Vol II. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Retrieved from Google Books.

Hopkins, C. G. D. (2014). The Shadow of Change: Politics and Memory in New England’s Historic Burying Grounds, 1630-1776. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Department of American Studies, Harvard University, Boston. Retrieved from

Ingold, T. (1993). The Temporality of Landscape. World Archaeology, Concepts of Time and Ancient Society 25(2), 152-174. Retrieved from

Lacy, Robyn S. (2017). Here lieth interr’d: An examination of 17th-century British burial landscapes in eastern North America. Master of Arts Thesis. Department of Archaeology, Memorial University of Newfoundland. St. John’s, Newfoundland. Retrieved from:

Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. (2009). Preservation Guidelines for Municipally owned Historical Burial Grounds and Cemeteries, third edition. Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Retrieved from introduction.pdf.

Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. (2011). Terra Firma: Putting Historic Landscape Preservation on Solid Ground. Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Historic Landscape Preservation Initiative. Retrieved from

Mather, C. (1713). A Christian Funeral. A brief ESSAY, On the CASE, What should be the Behaviour of a Christian at a FUNERAL? Or, Some Directions, How to Regulate a FUNERAL by the Rules of RELIGION; and how to Enliven RELIGION from the Circumstances of the Dead, at the HOUSE OF MOURNING. Boston: Timothy Green. Retrieved from the Internet Archive.

Mitford, J. (1963). The American Way of Death. London: Hutchinson & Co. LTD.

Morton, N. (1669). Sixth edition: 1855. New England’s Memorial. Congregational Board of Publication: Boston

Purdon, L. (2nd ed). (2002). Traveler’s New England Companion. Guilford, CT: The Globe Pequot Press.

Sewall, S. (1878). Diary of Samuel Sewall, 1674-1729. Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Boston, MA: Massachusetts Historical Society.

Sexton, J. (2002). The Guilford Green: An Ever-Changing Landscape. Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation. Retrieved from

Smith, R. D. (1877). The History of Guilford, Connecticut. Albany, NY: J. Munsell, Printer. Retrieved from

Stannard, D. E. (1977). The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religion, Culture, and Social Change. Oxford University Press: New York.

Winthrop, J. (1908). Winthrop’s Journal: “History of New England”. James Kendal Hosmer, L.L.D. (ed.). New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Worpole, K. (2003). Last Landscapes: The Architecture of the Cemetery in the West. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

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