The Old Burying Ground

From Menotomy Minutes, Winter 2000

This article is part one of a two-part series on the Old Burying Ground.

Look around — Arlington in the 21st century still offers glimpses of it’s early colonial roots. Although there are no houses surviving from the 17th century settlers that founded the village of Menotomy in 1635, there are several 18th century houses, mill sites and even a mile marker to remind us of the town’s colonial history. Perhaps the site that offers us the greatest tangible reminder of this past is the Old Burying Ground, tucked away behind the First Parish Unitarian Church in the center of town. It is here that the names and stories of generations past are etched in stone.

Early Puritan settlers had been living and working in the village of Menotomy for almost 100 years before a burying place was designated in 1724. Prior to this date, many of the early inhabitants of the village were interred in the burying ground in what is now Harvard Square, nearby the meeting house where they worshiped and attended school. The earliest mention of a burying ground in Menotomy can be found in the Proprietors’ Records for the town of Cambridge, when, in 1724, it was voted that “the road leading to Watertown was removed from the northerly side to the southerly side of the land reserved for a burying place.” The site of the meeting house was selected after the place for the burying ground had been designated.

The earliest gravestones date to 1736. Most of those buried in that year were children. William and Sarah (Robbins) Butterfield buried two children in the cold early months of that year.

Old Burying Ground, c. 1875

In 1767 a vote was passed to fence the burying place with a stone wall, and to do it by subscription. By May of 1771, the wall was still not completed, though locals had apparently emptied their fields somewhat for the cause, for it was voted that “any person that hath brought stones for the wall to fence the burying place, shall have the privilege of laying up the stones they have already brought.” There is no record of when the wall was actually completed, but the project was still languishing in 1783 when the town, yet again, that the project should be completed. The existing wall and gates were erected in 1843.

One of the most prominent features of the Old Burying Ground is the nineteen foot high granite obelisk honoring those killed in Menotomy on the first day of the Revolutionary War, April 19, 1775. At the time Jason Russell and eleven other patriots were buried in a mass grave, without coffins and in the clothes in which they fell. A headstone for Jason Russell was erected near the site of the mass grave. It reads “Mr. Jason Russell was barbarously murdered in his own house by Gage’s bloody troops, on the 19th of April, 1775, aetatis 59. His body is quietly resting in this grave with Eleven of our friends, who in like manner, with many others, were cruelly slain, on that fatal day. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.”

In 1848, the remains of the twelve were disinterred and placed in a stone vault set under the obelisk. Many of the British dead from that day were buried in an unmarked grave near the wall in the spot used for the burial of slaves. This site was near the brook that ran through the cemetery which is now the crushed stone path that connects Library Way to Pleasant Street.

Over time, other structures have stood on the grounds of the burying place. In 1806, a building was erected to the south side of “the gutter” (being the dry brook bed in the center) to house the hearse that had been purchased for the parish. From 1810 to 1843 a schoolhouse stood in the burying ground facing Pleasant Street. In the spring, runoff water from the hills filled the gutter and flowed directly under the building.

By the 1840s lack of space in the Old Burying Ground forced the town to establish a new cemetery. The new cemetery (named Mount Pleasant in 1846) was dedicated on June 14, 1843 by the Reverend David Damon, pastor of the Congregational Society. Shortly after the dedication, he suffered an attack of apoplexy and died just days later. Ironically, he was the first person interred in the new cemetery he had dedicated.

The data for this article was provided by Ralph D. Sexton, former Arlington Historical Commissioner and leader of two Boy Scout projects to re-transcribe cemetery epitaphs.