How to Visit Salem’s Historic Cemeteries

Charter Street Cemetery Salem MA

Photo: Jasmine Gordon

Salem’s earliest cemeteries were established in the 1600s when Puritanism was widely practiced in Massachusetts. Puritans understood the Bible literally, and thus never used religious imagery (even in their churches). As a result, angels and crosses were not used on Puritan cemetery markers, instead they used Death’s Heads for mortality along with hourglasses and scythes to mark the passing of time culminating in death.

The style of Death’s Heads (winged skulls) depended on the carver. Local craftsman carved gravestones as side jobs, though occasionally carvings from artists 10-15 miles away were used if the family of the deceased preferred and was willing to pay for it.

 

Photo: Jen Ratliff

17th century tombstones featured lengthy epitaphs with language that like most Puritan beliefs was quite literal. Many began with phrasing like “Here lies the body of” to make it clear that the entirety of the deceased was buried.

Changing religious beliefs in the late mid-late 18th century resulted in different preferences in funerary art. A departure from the Death’s Heads, soul effigies featured winged cherubs symbolic of the deceased’s soul moving towards resurrection. Epitaphs reflected this change, and language that once read “Here lies the body of” began to say “In memory of” instead.

By the late 18th-19th centuries, Neoclassical styles became increasingly popular in how New Englanders symbolized mourning, resulting in the urns (sometimes draped) and willow trees you see in historic cemeteries today. Monuments and obelisks, both borrowed from Greek and Roman architecture, and large tombs were added to select cemetery plots to showcase wealth.

Salem’s cemeteries also include chest or table tombs, which are above-ground and appear to have “lids.” These tombs do not contain the remains of the deceased; they function similarly to tombstones above buried remains.

Quick Guide to Salem’s Cemetery Imagery:

  • Hand (pointing up): hope for one’s soul to reach heaven
  • Hand (pointing down): God reaching down from above for one’s soul
  • Handshake: “goodbye” to earthly existence
  • Hourglasses & scythes: passing of time
  • Lamb: innocence (typically found on children’s graves)
  • Skulls/skeletons: mortality
  • Sun (setting): end of life on earth
  • Sun (rising): resurrection
  • Wheat: “Divine Harvest” or the passing of time

Salem has three cemeteries related to the Witch Trials

Cemetery History Salem MA

Howard Street Cemetery is said to be where Giles Corey was pressed to death, a torture used because he refused to stand trial.

Broad Street Cemetery is where George Corwin, high sheriff of Essex County in 1692, and his brother Jonathon Corwin, who lived in the “Witch House” when he served as magistrate during the trials, are buried.

Charter Street Cemetery is the resting place for members of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, physician Bartholomew Gedney and magistrate John Hathorne, great-great grandfather of writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. Also buried here is Mary Corey, the first wife of Giles Corey. (Giles’ third wife, Martha Corey, was hanged during the trials.) Please note: Charter Street Cemetery will be closed September 28-November 3, 2019 for restoration work.

During your visit to our historic cemeteries please…

  • Be respectful
  • Avoid standing, leaning, or pushing on stones and tombs
  • Remember that stone rubbings are strictly prohibited
  • Stay on the paths
  • Do not bring candles or open flames
  • Know that dogs are not allowed
  • Report suspicious behavior
  • Visit only during open hours (dawn to dusk)