Monday, September 15, 2014

The Old Salem Burying Ground

      We came next to the Old Salem Burying Ground. The land in the middle of the city isn't big, and it isn't small. Following along the street, I first thought we might not be walking in the right direction for the cemetery. Past houses and buildings and storefronts it lies, simply there. The cemetery, and the souls, that have laid there for so many years.

      We walked into the cemetery when it was empty. The stores and shops and attractions had been full as we passed them, and it seemed somehow odd, a kind of wrong that those who lived this history that put Salem on the map lay silent, univisited. My ignorance on exactly who is interred in the Old Salem Burying Ground quickly faded when my friend remarked that the victims of the trials were not here, but the judges were. Why weren't the victims here, I asked? Because they were convicted witches, and could not be buried in afforded a Christian burial in hollowed ground, I found.

      None of the famous victims-- Rebecca Nurse, Giles Corey, Mary Eastey, John Proctor-- are buried in the Old Salem Burying ground. Most of their final resting places remain unknown, with the notable exception of Rebecca Nurse, who had family who removed her body from the shallow grave where she was buried with other victims near the gallows, and brought her back to the family homestead to be properly buried. The Rebecca Nurse Homestead, in present day Danvers, MA, allows you to visit the historical Nurse family homestead, and pay your respects at Rebecca's grave. We did not make it over to the Homestead this trip, which I regret. Perhaps on a future return trip.

     While none of the victims are within the old burying ground, there is an honest and moving memorial to the victims on the outer edge of the cemetery. Stone benches with each victim's name are placed around a rectangular area with an open entryway resembling an unbarred prison, adorned with quotes inscribed on the ground from the victims' proclaiming their innocence. Without graves, walking from stone to stone, from John  Proctor to Sarah Good, I was left with the feeling that I had visited them, and laid my respects.

     Laying just outside the memorial is Judge John Hawthorne, who is buried in the ground of the Old Burying Point. His gravestone, old and from another time, has been preserved in the way many others in the cemetery have been, and reinforced. The judge who had such a direct hand in the murder of the victims has been sentenced, in death, to lie beside the memorial to the injustice he carried out, and the bold poetry of that circumstance is-- if not just-- fitting.

      While gravestones like Judge Hawthorne's have been aided in the quest to last through time, others have not. Stones from over 300 years ago stand tall, still upright, many clearly marked up by visitors attempting to read them. White lines made with stones highlight names and dates on grave markers that have stood so long they are decaying their self. The inscriptions for Giles Corey's, the victim who was sentenced to be crushed to death, first wife-- and others-- have been marked this way.

     And the stones are beautiful. The level and style of simple, direct decoration used going back what is now a few hundred years are all their own, and standing in that cemetery, in Salem, you understand it. The crudely drawn skeletons with wings, perched atop a stone, the simple designs of intertwined hearts. You understand something about these people. What they believed, and what death looked like to them.

     Apart from the Judge, the other famous residents of the old burying ground are those who came close to the history that makes Salem famous. Mary Corey, first wife of victim Giles Corey, lies far and to the back of the cemetery. And in a section covered by a few trees, over to the side, lies Nathaniel Mather, brother of Puritan and witchcraft expert Cotton Mather. In his writings, Cotton Mathew documented the witch trials, and in many ways fueled beliefs that led to the hysteria-- to the point where his writings are even mentioned as something the fictional Ichabod Crane-- superstitious believer in witchcraft and all things occult-- reads in Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Standing in front of Nathaniel's grave, his brother Cotton Mather-- who was almost a character in the tale of the Headless Horseman, and certainly a player in the witch trials-- became more real to me, the fears and superstitions and prejudices of the trials stepping out of their graves and into the light.

     Walking out of the cemetery, we watched a bus of people on some type of senior citizen's tour disembark, and begin to file into the victims' memorial. And then, several other tourists began to wander in. We had, we found, caught the old burying point during a rare quiet time.

View my whole album of the first day in the Old Burying Point here.

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