A Cemetery under Siege

The Agenda for the meeting of the Salem Cemetery Commission tonight includes a “Recommendation to Close Charter Street Cemetery during  October”. I support this recommendation, and urge others who do so to either attend the meeting or forward their thoughts to the Commission. Here is my letter.

I urge the Salem Cemetery Commission to authorize the complete closure of the Old Burying Point Cemetery on Charter Street during the month of October, when it is clearly exposed to unrelenting population pressures which threaten its vulnerable monuments and landscape. Certainly it is within the discretion of the Commission to authorize this closure and provide access to those who formally request it on a much more limited basis. Salem already has one closed cemetery, the Quaker Burying Ground on Essex Street, and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation grants municipalities wide latitude in their recommendations for library stewardship, particularly for historic cemeteries located in urban areas. The City of Boston has closed nine of its 16 historic burying grounds.

The City of Salem is to be commended for its preservation initiatives of recent years, including the ongoing restoration work at Charter Street funded by the Community Preservation Act and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the safeguarding of this investment is certainly an important justification for the closure of the cemetery during October. Another reason, equally compelling, is the opportunity for the City to express reverence for a site that is not only historic, but sacred. The dramatic escalation of Haunted Happenings has turned downtown Salem into a for-profit playground during much of the fall, and the Charter Street Cemetery and bordering Witch Trials Memorial must be excluded from this commercial context: their unfortunate proximity to the adjacent Salem Witch Village diminishes (no, eradicates) the line between carnival and commemoration.

As an educator, it concerns me to see any historical resource removed from public access. I wish that the Charter Street cemetery could serve as an authentic counterweight to the dramatic excesses of Haunted Happenings where visitors could learn from real remnants of the past but that can’t happen in an environment of crushing crowds and rampant irreverence; instead it is utilized as a textual backdrop for photographs at best and for more active endeavors at worst. Over the years, I have seen people eat, drink, sit, lie, jump, dance and skype on or near graves in Charter Street; I didn’t see the infamous diaper-changing incident but was not surprised. It’s lovely to trail behind individuals and families in April or June or even September as they read the inscriptions and revel in the sheer weight of the past that is so very evident in our most ancient cemetery, but that’s not possible in October. October in Salem is a time for a quite different type of revelry, and the Old Burying Point should not be its scene.






20190812_125514The Old Burying Point on Charter Street in mid-August.

Charter Street Linden Tea FlickrThe Old Burying Point in October via @Linden Tea on Flickr.

Update: last night the Cemetery Commission voted to continue the matter to its September 10 meeting. The Friends of the Downtown Salem Historic Cemeteries submitted a proposal to the Commission which you can see on their website: https://www.salemcemeteries.org/. This proposal calls for the Old Burying Point Cemetery to remain open during the week and be restricted to approved tour groups on the weekends. I have great respect for the Friends group, which has been advocating for better interpretation and preservation of the downtown cemeteries for several years, but I think I’ll stand by my statement and plea for complete closure during October: I have simply seen too much disrespectful behavior in the cemetery and I have the luxury of speaking only for myself rather than having to mitigate between different vested interests as the Friends group does. To me, Charter Street is a cemetery, rather than an “attraction”, and I think we owe the Dead and their families more respect than we do tourists accommodation. But Charter Street is also a public space, and a public process in which all interested parties have an opportunity to weigh in must govern its use, so I’m grateful to the Cemetery Commission for overseeing this process, and to all parties for their input.

15 responses to “A Cemetery under Siege

  • Nanny Almquist

    Once more many thanks Donna for alerting us to what is happening in Salem as regards preserving its history and institutions. In response to this post I called the Cem. Com. and was given the email addresses of the Chair and Sec.

    Chair Ron Harrison: rharrison@salem.com
    Sec. Mary Anne Silva: msilva@salem.com

    I hope that any of you so moved will email them today as they meet this evening of Aug. 13.

    Here is the email I wrote and send:

    Dear Mr. Harrison and Ms. Silva,

    I’m writing to you as Chair and Secretary of the Salem Cemetery Commission to strongly encourage your Commission to close the Charter St. Cemetery for the month of October during Haunted Happenings.

    As a descendant of at least 4 ancestors, William Garish and three Higginsons, who have stones or tombs in this cemetery I would like to see this cemetery closed for the month of Oct as an act of respect and good stewardship. I have visited these ancestral graves in the past and will visit again and want to find them as I last saw them. Stone is strong but as any visit to our oldest graveyards will show they can be broken, knocked down, and otherwise damaged. Hundreds/Thousands of Holloween visitors to this ancient sight make such damage a real possibility.

    With Respect for our History and the Cemetery Commission,

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna, what a forceful letter to the Salem Cemetery Commission supporting the closing of the Charter Street Cemetery during the crazy month of October in your city.

    Very well said:

    “The dramatic escalation of Haunted Happenings has turned downtown Salem into a for-profit playground during much of the fall, and the Charter Street Cemetery and bordering Witch Trials Memorial must be excluded from this commercial context: their unfortunate proximity to the adjacent Salem Witch Village diminishes (no, eradicates) the line between carnival and commemoration.”


  • bonniehurdsmith

    In 1000000000% agreement with you all.

    Thank you, Donna — again!

  • Glenn McDonald

    Hi Donna,

    Reluctantly, I support your letter and efforts from afar. Sometimes, you just gotta do what you gotta do.

    Next time you take a ramble through the Burying Point, or Howard Street or Broad Street cemeteries, take a look at the similarities among the stones. There were intergenerational carvers of slate and sandstone grave markers back then, just as today.

    One can look at the tops of the stones as tryptichs, say a central lunette with an hour glass and flanking death’s heads. Different families of carvers specialized in different symbols of death, and those representations are the clues by which the carvers can be classified. I’m sure someone has written a book about the New England way of death, but it eludes me at the moment.

    While I’m on the subject, for one of the greatest allegorical grave stones of all time. I haven’t seen it in more than 40 years, and I hope it is still there. It’s in King’s Chapel burying ground in downtown Boston, relocated, and lining a walkway. I believe that dates from about 1692. The central element of the slate has a carved skeleton carrying a candle snuffer chasing the figure of a young lad carrying a lighted candle. Holy allegory, batman!

    Lastly, if you’ve never been there, I recommend a trip to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord Mass. It (along with Mount Auburn Cemetery in dates from the classical “cemeteries as green spaces” period of the 1830’s -1850’s. Go to author’s ridge and climb the path and see the gravestones of Henry David Thoreau, the Alcott family and the fellow who wrote “The Seven Little Peppers and How They Grew”. When you get to the top of the ridge, take a moment to survey the tranquil scene, and you will notice, in the near distance, a rose quartz boulder tucked into a family plot.

    I won’t tell you who’s planted there, but once you see that rock, you’ll be pretty much compelled to stroll over to see who’s there. Tell me HIS ego doesn’t live on after death.

    On a personal note, I’m going to be in Salem for the weekend. If you happen to be in your office around 11 AM, I plan to drop by with a memento of Strawberry Banke for you.



  • Nancy

    While I understand, it saddens me deeply as my daughter and I will be visiting Ipswich and Salem this October. I have profound respect for the site and its historical and religious significance…and I wonder why there can’t be some sort of monitoring for proper and respectful decorum as with any other historical treasure.

    • daseger

      Well maybe there can, Nancy. This is my position now, based on what I heard from descendants, read in the conservator’s report, and seen with my own eyes, but this is a public process and so all must be ready to compromise! Apparently there was a continuance at the meeting tonight, so the discussion will continue.


    Hello! We at the Friends of the Downtown Historic Cemeteries have put a proposal before the commission that we hope will be a compromise for all involved. Please feel free to read it on our webpage, salemcemeteries.org

  • FairytaleFeminista

    I think cemeteries, like places of worship, should be treated with respect and when they’re opened to the public for something as commercial as Haunted Happenings, people forget themselves and this of them as props. But there are people who genuinely want to pay their respects to the dead and should be allowed to do so. Maybe they can go the route of the English with Stonehenge. Those who want to take a closer look have to apply for entry and the rest have to stand behind the line.

  • John M. Switlik

    It isn’t as if a cemetery or two has not already been destroyed in little Essex County of Massachusetts. At last count, there were over 200 graves that would need attention.

    Start to read about it here: https://thomasgardnerofsalem.blogspot.com/2019/02/another-twist.html. I point to a report by a Trask researcher about Lynn’s movement of stones, leaving the remains. But, have, since, found other references to this sort of thing.

    Before discovering that little jewel of news about disappear cemeteries, and after much reading and talking to people, it became evident to me that we had this very thing in Salem. In short, the Gardner burial plot, which was near the current Trask one, was disturbed. It was violated in the interest of commerce which is not unlike now with the witch mania (every fall). At first, this news was troublesome, I took a long while before accepting the fact. But, I heard from people about missing bodies. Also, I went deeper into Sidney’s (need I mention his last name, Perley’s) work. Later I saw that he mentioned that some bodies had been moved to the Trask plot. https://thomasgardnerofsalem.blogspot.com/2018/10/new-twist.html

    Lots of research pending.

    Some graves had already been destroyed in the Gardner plot when Simon Pickering Gardner visited the site in the 1830s (stones thrown about). I have tracked down who sold the land, etc. This is a story waiting to be told. The property had been in the Gardner family since Thomas’ time.

    But, about October’s cah’ching of the registers due to visitors and tramplers of graves. Right near where the Gardner plot had been (according to Sidney, again), we now have the Holy Ghost Center. To me, how appropriate it would be for Salem to mark that area and direct some attention that way. Say, before getting in revelries, consider that some of this stuff is real.

    Some have argued this, well, Harmony Grove is where this site was. These two (HGC and Gardner’s plot) were on different sides of the brook/river (Gardner/Proctor/North, what have you) that disappeared, evidently filled in with the bones of our ancestors.

    Much to discuss, especially given the 400th that is pending.

    John M. Switlik
    Thomas Gardner Society, Inc.

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