Everything I Know About Contemporary Culture I Learned From Exploring Copp’s Hill Cemetery

This piece was written in Jennifer Crystal's Writing About Place course, which she is offering again beginning Sunday, March 20th. 

 

“I think there’s a cemetery a few blocks away with famous people, like Paul Revere,” the woman in the barn coat noted to her friend.

The two chatted while flipping through the Boston guidebook as they left Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in search more of famous remains. 

On that autumn day, with blue skies and cascading crimson leaves, the city’s second oldest cemetery was not enough to capture these tourists’ attention. They were likely in search of something more exciting, an experience more #hashtagable.

Walking through this peaceful parcel of land in the otherwise boisterous North End, I realized that, among the ivy-enveloped headstones, many of which are gradually being swallowed by the lumpy earth, certain truths about our own pop-culture worshiping, yet rebellious world are revealed. 

 

We love to worship the fear-mongering glitterati

Cotton Mather, 17th century puritan preacher, fashionable wig wearer, and man about town was a big deal in his day. Had there been a scripted reality series in early America, he would be the one they’d be keeping up with through the narrow cobblestone paths of colonial Boston. In fact, his controversial behavior would have made him the ultimate reality star.

His fire and brimstone sermons pitted neighbor against neighbor. He referred to Native Americans as Satan’s “most devoted and resembling children.” Possibly worst of all, he fanned the flames, and headcount, of the 1692 Salem Witchcraft trials by agreeing that very unscientific spectral evidence was appropriate to present at trial. Yet just a few years later he seemingly embraced biology and crusaded to bring a smallpox inoculation to a city full of science skeptics. 

Centuries later, politicians and fear mongers are still taking tips from Mather’s playbook. Most recently, Donald Trump’s xenophobic position that “immigration reform will make America great again,” his call for a wall on the Mexican border, and his proposal to ban Muslims, stink of Mather-mania.

One can only hope history treats Trump the same way it did Mather: How is Mather remembered today? On a recent Freedom Trail tour that stopped at his deteriorating grave in Copp’s Hill, his name drew blank stares all around. 

 

We root for the underdog

Cotton Mather was certainly a meddler. After having his likability ratings plummet following the Witchcraft trials, he attempted a comeback campaign that, on the surface, seemed too easy to fail.

William Fly was a wanted pirate. He spent months raiding ships along the Atlantic, and led a mutiny aboard a vessel where he worked as a hired hand. Unfortunately for a pirate, Fly was a horrible navigator and accidently entered Boston Harbor in 1726. Upon his capture, Mather—one can only imagine—salivated at the thought of having the opportunity to save such an infamous soul. Mather fancied himself the best in the business at convincing the damned to repent.

But William Fly had his revenge. Instead of confessing his sins on the gallows, the pirate derided the hangman’s noose-tying skills, and instead re-tied the rope himself. He also refused to confess, using his last breaths to curse Mather, and curse the captain he declared he rightly killed for treating his sailors so poorly. Instead of cheering for the sinner’s salvation, the Puritan onlookers cheered for Fly and the stand he took for the common man.

 

Haters gonna hate the patriots

Tom Brady, with his underinflated balls, is hardly the first patriot to face detractors from opposing colors. Daniel Malcom was a beloved patriot. He rebelled against taxes and royal crowns, thereby becoming a target of ire from the Redcoats. He had a been dead a few years by the time the British army occupied Copp’s Hill in 1775 during the Battle of Bunker Hill and got their petty, revenge by using Malcom’s grave for target practice during downtime on the hill.

Why the extreme hate for Malcom? He was a well-known for smuggling goods into the harbor to avoid paying the much-protested taxes. While he evaded capture by the British authorities in life, he went to equally great measures in his death to ensure they never captured his corpse. He requested his grave be buried ten feet deep to elude the intrusive hands of the British. In the end, a few frustrated enemy bullet marks on his slate gravestone, the musket indentations still visible today, only add to his reputation as a lovable rebel.

 

We like to make our own rules

Americans do not like authority. We became a country of dissenters by fleeing the monarchy and religious control. Those rebel roots remain strong. On one visit to the burial ground, I arrived at about 4:35PM to find the gate locked, though the sign clearly read: open 9AM - 5PM. Confused, I made a note to call the Boston Parks and Recreation Department. I forgot to call until just after 4PM on a Friday, when no one was around to answer.

On my most recent visit to Copp’s Hill, the burial ground was full of tourists traipsing around with cameras and bakery boxes from down the street. Interrupting my walk, a surly looking park ranger cut across the brick paths to inform everyone, “The park is closing now.” The time? 4:40PM.

“I have 20 more minutes,” I thought to myself. Channeling the rebellious vibes from our dead forefathers, I was determined to stay the course and remain until the posted hours were upon us.

Along with a few stragglers, I stood my ground while the ranger watched from the entrance. As if at a mall at closing time, she closed the heavy, wrought iron gate to prevent others from entering. When someone left, she opened, and then closed the massive gate behind them, making a loud grinding noise each time. It was the kind of sound that echoes in the bones of the living and the dead.

Undeterred by the heavy-handed performance, I exited at 4:57PM. On my walk back to the T, I passed a long line of tourists in front of Mike’s Pastry. But that’s a story best saved for another time, when I will explore the life lessons learned from noshing in the North End. 

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