April 29, 2021

Old New England Cemetery Lore: Watch Your Step

This past Saturday was warm and sunny, and although I'm always happy to stay home with a pile of obscure books I decided to go for a walk. I went to one of my favorite places, Brookline's Old Burying Ground. 

It's a really charming cemetery, well-cared for with just the right amount of decay. Although it's only a few miles from downtown Boston it feels like a rural environment. A few notable folks are buried there, including Zabdiel Boylston, a local physician who inoculated people against smallpox in 1721. It was the first inoculation campaign in North America, and Boylston got the idea from Onesimus, a slave in the household of Cotton Mather, the (in)famous minister associated with the Salem witch trials.

Cotton Mather's stepmother, Anna Mather, is also buried in Old Burying Ground. Her husband Increase Mather (also associated with the Salem trials) is buried at Copp's Hill in Boston, but she outlived him by several years and was buried in Brookline in 1737. Her grave is marked by a beautiful and well-preserved stone. 

As I wandered through Old Burying Ground I thought about some old New England cemetery folklore I've been reading recently. Some of it is probably familiar. For example, if you feel a cold chill for no reason it's probably because someone has walked over the site of your future grave. I think that one is well-known. 

A related piece of lore says that you should never step on anyone's grave when you're in a cemetery. That makes sense to me. If the living get a chill from someone just walking over their future grave, think how annoyed the dead must be when you step on their actual grave. Unfortunately, sometimes this advice is hard to follow, particularly in old cemeteries. The graves are placed really closely together at Brookline's Old Burying Ground, and it is hard not to step on one. There are also lots of unmarked graves, so you're probably unintentionally walking on someone. I think the intent behind this piece of lore is what's really important: treat the dead with respect. 

Many years ago when I was a kid I went for a bike ride with my friend Bobby in a neighborhood cemetery. We were riding pretty fast and goofing around, and I started to worry that we weren't being respectful. I said, perhaps half-jokingly, that we shouldn't be too loud or we'd disturb the dead. 

Bobby laughed and said, "I'm not afraid of any dead people!"

As soon as he said that he skidded, fell off his bike, and scraped his knee up really badly. His pants were torn and there was a lot of blood. We both left the cemetery immediately and went home. We kind of laughed but were also a bit spooked. Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but I've never forgotten it. 

Speaking of forgetting, according to another piece of old lore you shouldn't spend too much time reading gravestone inscriptions. This is bad news for me, since I really like to read old inscriptions. I'm not sure what constitutes too much time and hopefully I am under the limit. I can understand the sentiment, though, because when I read too many gravestones I do feel a little lightheaded from all the dates and names. It's like when I spend too much time on Instagram!

One final piece of advice: you shouldn't walk through a cemetery on your way to see friends. You run the risk of carrying death to their house if you do. Happily, I just went back home after visiting Old Burying Ground. It was a pleasant way to spend a sunny afternoon. 

I got this cemetery lore from Clifton Johnson's What They Say in New England (1896) and Fanny Bergen's Current Superstitions (1896).

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