Wednesday, May 8, 2013

King's Chapel Burial Ground (Boston, MA)

This is the third cemetery in a series of photos I've taken at various Boston cemeteries. Today, we're moving on to King's Chapel Burial Ground. Most of this will look pretty similar to the other two cemeteries I've talked about, but they play around a bit with those common themes and symbols. Believe me, I could have stacked this post with winged death's heads- they're absolutely everywhere (and my favorite)- but that doesn't give you a good idea of the variety of artwork this cemetery has.

King's Chapel is home to a few noteworthy individuals, among them John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts; William Dawes Jr., who helped warn of the British invasion; Elizabeth Pain, who was Nathaniel Hawthorne's model for Hester Prynne in "The Scarlet Letter"; and the man this monument honors, Chevalier de Saint-Sauveur, a French officer who was part of one of the first contingents to arrive and help the Americans in 1778. He died during a riot, caused by the French not allowing Bostonians to purchase bread that had been made from their own wheat. There is a much longer and interesting story as to what led up to the riot, as well as why the monument was not erected until 1917, when the Chevalier perished 127 years prior-- you can read a summary here or the complete story here. The image captured here is the Chevalier's family arms flanked by dolphins (Yep, those are dolphins!) which are symbolic of his naval service.

Yes yes, a death's head! If you look closely, on the stone around the hourglass and winged skull are the words "Fugit Hora" and "Memento Mori." I had to look up the first one, as I didn't remember what that meant- "The hour flies." Some people mistake "Memento mori" as a phrase that encourages rememberance of the dead, but it actually asks you to remember that -you- will die. Remember the reality of your own death, because you can't escape it- and it will come faster than you think, according to "Fugit hora." This is one of those philosophies that I think gets a bad rap, as being morbid. I don't see it as morbid. I see it as a reminder not only that you will die, but that you should live your life to the fullest and take advantage of every day you have. It's not meant to be a bummer, it's meant to inspire you to get all you can from life while you're able.

I found this scene really interesting because of how rich it is with symbolism, even redundant symbolism. For example, there are two figures- one a skeleton, one a man with a beard and wings. The man is holding an hourglass, and I would half to guess is a visual representation of Time. The skeleton holds an arrow, and is snuffing a candle. This would be Death- who on occasion, is depicted holding an arrow, which symbolizes mortality. There is also a scythe in the background, on the right hand side. So we have Time and Death working together to end a life. 

This of course, as you can plainly see, is from the grave of John Winthrop, Massachusetts' first governor. You can tell what amazing condition it's in just from this small photograph, the engravings look amazing, which makes me wonder if the stone is perhaps replaced over time to keep it looking fresh. Either way, there is a coat of arms on the stone, with the words "spec vincit thronum" which means "Hope conquers the throne."

This last photo is of James Townsend's Tomb, which has a crest on it. There are multiple scallop shells on it, which apparently have a variety of meanings. Without knowing more about the Townsend family, I can't guess which may have been more relevant- they are used religiously to allude to St. Augustine, or for pilgrims or pilgrimage. But one meaning that I found especially interesting was that in church art it often refers to James the Great, an apostle.

King's Chapel Burying Ground Review via Fodor's
The Memorial to the Chevalier de Saint-Saveur in Boston via Out and About in Paris
The Memorial to the Chevialer de Saint-Saveur via Internet Archive
Fugit hora and Memento mori via Latin Dictionary
Spes vincit thronum via Latinat0r


  1. Last time I was in Boston I wandered into this cemetery! The older tombstones are really delightfully creepy compared to modern day engravings. Even so, I also sort of got the feeling that it reflected a matter-of-fact view of death rather than something overly morbid. Thanks for filling in some of the history that I wasn't aware of, and for the great photos!

    1. Thank you! And yes, I definitely feel that way about the symbols too.