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.
The Old Burying Point on Charter Street in mid-August.
The 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.