EASTHAM — We can probably thank Hollywood (and maybe Dickens) for the creepy reputation of burial grounds. What would a horror film be without a desolate graveyard overgrown with weeds, strewn with crumbling headstones, their skull and hourglass engravings slowly being erased by time?
For the many who dread graveyards — holding their breath and averting their eyes as they scamper past — there are just as many for whom the hallowed ground is a source of comfort, a quiet place for reflection. For them these are places where life is affirmed, where the memory of loved ones and long departed ancestors is made tangible, where one’s purpose and journey, however fleeting, is acknowledged by headstones and deeply expressed poetic inscriptions.
With the dedication of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge in 1831, burial places began to take on a different appearance and function from their colonial forebears. The new garden and rural cemeteries — laid out in an orderly manner and landscaped with walkways, horticultural specimens, ponds, works of art, and architecturally significant buildings — were intended as civic spaces for both burials and recreation. Some, including Mount Auburn and the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, are the final resting place for so many notables that they have become tourist destinations.
It is not sacrilegious to suggest that cemeteries need “tourists.” Old graveyards, especially those that no longer have plots to sell and thus no way to raise revenue, need people to care. They call out for repairs and restoration and need benefactors. Their dead, often so far removed from any living descendants that they have all but been forgotten, need to be remembered.
First Cape Cod Burials
Less than 20 years after the Mayflower left Provincetown for Plymouth in 1620, Cape Cod towns began to be settled. The first burials, next to meetinghouses, were in unmarked graves, or graves mounded with earth and stones and marked with a simple wooden cross. Those graves and meetinghouses have long since vanished from the landscape, but later generations of colonial graveyards still exist.
If an early grave is intact, one finds two stones, a headstone and a smaller footstone, that suggest the headboard and footboard of a bed, symbolic of eternal sleep. Sadly, in too many cases, it is only the three-lobed headstone — a tympanum flanked by rounded shoulders — with an inscribed tablet surrounded by decorative carving that survives. The work of prominent headstone carvers from Boston and Plymouth is well represented on Cape Cod, their scroll borders, winged skulls, crossed bones, flying cherubs, and hourglasses among the finest examples of cemetery art. Poignant, sometimes humorous, and occasionally irreverent epitaphs offer not only a glimpse into the earthly journey of the dead but of beliefs and societal fashions of the time.
Among the oldest burial sites on Cape Cod is the Cove Burying Ground in Eastham, its significance recognized in 1999 when it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It is the resting place of three Mayflower passengers: Constance Hopkins (1605-1677), her younger brother Giles Hopkins (1607-1690), and Joseph Rogers (1607-1678). They were among those passengers known as “strangers” who, unlike the “saints,” were fleeing England not because of religious persecution but rather for economic opportunity in the New World. Imagine explaining that to the three teenagers — Constance, 15; Giles, 13; and Joseph, 12 — who knew they would never see England again.
Cove Burying Ground is the only known Cape Cod graveyard in which Mayflower passengers were buried. Though a monument in Provincetown’s Winthrop Street Cemetery honors the four Mayflower passengers who died at sea as well as Dorothy Bradford, who drowned in Provincetown Harbor, they are not buried in that cemetery.
Having been among the fortunate to survive the first treacherous winter in Plymouth, during which half of the Mayflower passengers died, Constance, Giles, and Joseph shared in the three-day feast during the fall of 1621 when the Pilgrims gathered with their Wampanoag neighbors to give thanks for a bountiful harvest.
Eastham, originally Nauset, was settled in 1644 by seven Plymouth families. By 1646 the original Congregational meetinghouse had been built on or near the site of the Cove Burying Ground. Expanded in 1676, it served the community until 1720. Constance Hopkins and her husband, Nicholas Snow, were among Eastham’s first families.
After leaving Plymouth, Giles Hopkins went first to Yarmouth (founded in 1639), and by 1650 was in Eastham. Lt. Joseph Rogers, whose father, Thomas, did not survive the first winter in Plymouth, went first to Duxbury (founded in 1637) and by 1647 had settled in Eastham. Though the original graves of the three Mayflower passengers no longer exist, monuments to their memories have been placed by their descendants.
As many as one hundred unmarked graves may be in the Cove Burying Ground, but among the gravestones that do exist are several that predate any other stones on the Lower Cape from Chatham to Provincetown.
The ornate 1711 slate headstone of Marcy (Mercy) Freeman is noteworthy not only for the uniqueness of its heart-shaped tablet, but because it is believed to be the oldest original gravestone on Cape Cod displaying a winged head. The elegant and artful stone seems fitting for Marcy, the daughter of Gov. Thomas Prence and his wife, Patience Brewster, and the granddaughter of Mayflower passenger Elder William Brewster, the spiritual leader of the “saints.” She is buried in a family plot with her husband, Major John Freeman, and their son, Lt. Edmund Freeman.
In stark contrast to the professionally carved stones that well-to-do families were able to afford, a number of headstones are fashioned from fieldstone — boulders turned up by farmers in their fields — roughly chiseled by a family member. The 1713 headstone of Benjamin Paine is the oldest known inscribed fieldstone on Cape Cod. One could be forgiven for thinking that these “homemade” memorials, some now mere fragments and some without any inscription at all, are little more than scattered stones frost-heaved from Mother Earth when, in fact, they are stones that express no less a sorrow than Cove’s elegant slate examples.
Amy Whorf McGuiggan is the author of Provincetown’s Historic Cemeteries and Memorials and other books. Graveyard Shift, part history and part genealogy, will appear regularly in the Independent.