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King’s Chapel Burial Ground

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58 Tremont St
Boston, MA 02108 United States

The King’s Chapel Burial Ground was established in 1630, on land that had formerly belonged to colonist Isaac Johnson. Johnson is believed to be the first person interred there, following—according to legend—his request to be buried in his pumpkin patch. Between 1630 and 1660, King’s Chapel Burial Ground was the only cemetery in Boston. Notable occupants include Mary Chilton, the first woman to step off the Mayflower; Paul Revere’s compatriot, William Dawes; Ralph Waldo Emerson’s father, William Emerson; Hezekiah Usher, the colonies’ first publisher; and the first governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop. Many other early colonists, notable puritans, war heroes, and a pirate are buried there.

The cemetery is also notable for two famous headstones. The first, belonging to Joseph Tapping, is one of the most intricately carved of its day, depicting father time and the skeletal figure of death snuffing a lit candle. The second was erected for Elizabeth Pain in 1704. It reads, “Here lies Elizabeth Pain, wife to Samuel Pain,” and is decorated with a coat of arms and a winged skull. It is believed to be the inspiration for the gravestone of Hester Prynne, the protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter. Set in the mid-1600s, The Scarlet Letter tells the story of a woman living in Puritan Boston who is convicted of adultery and made to wear a scarlet “A.” The book chronicles her struggle for dignity in the face of sin and ostracism. Hawthorne describes Prynne’s burial:

“After many, many years, a new grave was delved, near an old and sunken one, in that burial ground beside which King’s Chapel has since been built. It was near that old and sunken grave, yet with a space between, as if the dust of the two sleepers had no right to mingle. Yet one tombstone served for both… On this simple slab of slate—as the curious investigator may still discern, and perplex himself with the purport—there appeared the semblance of an engraved escutcheon [a shield or coat of arms].”

The chapel that Hawthorne describes still stands. The land it occupies was set aside by decree of King James II, and a wooden church was built on the site in 1688. A stone structure was completed in 1789 for an oration attended by George Washington. Since, notable parishioners have included Louisa May Alcott, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. The chapel contains the oldest pulpit in continual use in the US.

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Did You Know?

Certain books were “banned in Boston” at least as far back as 1651, when one William Pynchon wrote a book criticizing Puritanism.