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History Lesson < 500 Words "Graveyards of Massachusetts"

This is a shortened article review I wrote recently.  It discusses the significance behind graveyard locations in Colonial Massachusetts.

Title:  “For Honour and Civil Worship to Any Worthy Person”:  Burial, Baptism, and Community on the Massachusetts Near Frontier, 1730-1790.

Author:  John L. Brooke

Brooke discusses the location of graveyards in relation to the town center.  Upon examining nineteenth-century histories and atlases of Worcester and Middlesex counties, he found that up until about 1670, graveyards were located away from the town center, which signaled a “marked segregation of the dead from the center of civil and religious life.”  Although this separation was standard for the Puritans, it was not something that followed the English pattern.  Instead, it was a result of Puritan iconoclasm and deritualization.  The English Puritans, as part of their departure from sacramentalism, “stripped their own funeral rites of all religious content.”  As a result, graveyards became a separate entity of society.  By the end of the seventeenth century, there was a reversal to this pattern.  New towns in Middlesex County (and later on in Worcester County), began establishing meetinghouses and graveyards within immediate proximity of each other.  One of the reasons behind this new close proximity was the fact that in Central Massachusetts townspeople were more scattered than the original settlements were.  These increasingly “backcountry” areas were set up in a scattered pattern of isolated farms, loosely grouped together in neighborhoods that covered many miles.  The building of meetinghouses next to burial grounds formed “an integrated corporate center” where “people would. . .be confronted with their own past [and] where previous members of the corporate community lay waiting for the Resurrection.”

Critical to the changing death ritual was the “transformation of religious piety and polity in late seventeenth-century Massachusetts Bay.”  Occurring during this time was a new, more inclusive, approach to the Puritan congregation.  This became known as the Half-Way Covenant, and it “allowed the unconverted children of full church members both to ‘own the covenant’ and to come under church discipline; in turn it extended the privilege to their children.”  What Brooke found was a correlation between the locations of graveyards to meetinghouses of communities that adopted the Half-Way Covenant.  For example, “among eleven churches in Essex, Middlesex, and Suffolk counties practicing extended baptism before 1670, six were in towns with adjacent meetinghouse and graveyard.”  In contrast, “all six churches known to have oppose or delayed implementation of the Half-Way Covenant were in towns where the meetinghouse and graveyard were separated by a  tenth to four-fifths of a mile.”

These “new” traditions were soon to change once again beginning in the eighteenth century.  The religious upheaval of the Great Awakening caused dissent among worshippers in the Near Frontier.  A separate Baptist polity and doctrine arose out of the dissent, which resulted in the rejection of the traditional death rituals of the Congregationalists.  The withdrawal of these people from the central meetinghouses resulted in a withdrawal from the central graveyards.  There was “a clear pattern of scattered distribution of the dead in those places where the structural unity of the town and charge had been eroded by religious pluralism and contention.”  Baptist, and even Quaker, graveyards could be found scattered throughout central Massachusetts.

2 responses to “History Lesson < 500 Words "Graveyards of Massachusetts"”

  1. Avatar lee lee says:

    Love it. Of course, I do have a morbid fascination with, well, all things morbid. But it helps when it's *also* well-written, such as this. A+!

  2. Avatar Christina says:

    Yeah, I have a morbid fascination with it too. I have been lucky to get to do a lot of graveyard "stuff" in my college career, haha…

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Christina About Christina

*Christina “Olives” Lamoureux is the self-fulfilling prophecy of a quirky and sarcastic procrastinator. When faced with the reality of work, she generally takes a nap instead. She currently lives and attends graduate school in Fitchburg, MA, where she spends her time studying really old stuff as an Ancient and Medieval History major. She is very slowly writing a true crime story that has nothing to do with ancient or medieval history, but aspires to write historical fiction as well. The only perfect thing she has done in her life is thrown a 300 game in ten pin bowling; since that occurred in her twenties, it is now ancient history as well. Besides history and bowling, she “sees dead people” as part of a paranormal investigation team. When she cannot afford to indulge in her martini fetish, she reads or watches terrible, pointless TV.

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