Newton's first cemetery offers insight into the city's history
The old burying ground at Centre and Cotton streets was one of the first to be included in the National Register of Historic Places as an individual site. It is the most important, the most evocative and also the most fragile historic site in the city. As the resting place of Newtons founding families it is a direct link with the past and, as an out- door museum, it displays the sequence of styles in gravestone art and the changes in burial practices over the years.
The first permanent residents in what would become Newton settled near the Brighton line in the 1630s. Gradually others joined them and by the 1650s about fifteen families were living in an area that was still part of Cambridge. Because of this, transacting town business, going to school or attending religious services involved a journey (probably on foot) to the vicinity of Harvard Square.
In 1654, most of the families living south of the river started holding religious meetings locally, and as a means of prodding the General Court to relieve them of taxes to support the minister in Cambridge, John Jackson gave an acre of land to be used as a burying place and for a meeting house. This acre remains the core of the burying ground and the site of the first meeting house is marked by a monument erected in 1852 by the descendants of the first settlers. The twenty names inscribed on the west face of the marble obelisk are now all but obliterated, but attached to schools, streets, brooks and ponds, they are familiar to modern residents.
The markers on the graves of at least six of these early inhabitants are still standing, the carvings, for the most part, as clear as on the day they were cut. Much the same can be said for the majority of the markers commemorating those who followed them: teachers, selectmen and other town officials, weavers, soldiers, millers, yeomen, and their wives and families, each of whom made some contribution to the development of the town. The sum of their activities is the history of pre-suburban Newton.
Jacksons acre was added to three times: once (by his son) in the eighteenth century and twice in the nineteenth. Because it was the only burying place in Newton until 1781, and because it was used continuously until near the end of the 1800s, the old cemetery is an ideal place for tracing the stylistic changes that characterize the work of the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Boston area stone carvers.
The oldest marker is that of Mary Hyde (progenitrix of Newtons first mayor) who died in 1672. Like others of that period, it is small and except for the inscription, unadorned. More numerous by far are the winged deaths heads that were used extensively until the middle of the eighteenth century, when they gradually gave way to winged cherubs and stylized portraits. By the centurys end, these, in turn, were superseded by the urn and willow of the Classical Revival. Meticulous research over seventy years has made it possible to identify the work of a large number of New England stone cutters. Two of them lived in Newton, and while their work is reasonably easy to identify, many, if not most, other markers cannot yet, with confidence, be attributed to any particular hand.
The final addition to what, by then, was known as the First, or East, Parish Burying Ground, was made in 1834. This low-lying area to the north bears little resemblance to the Puritan burying ground. Rather it is a cemetery in transition, typical of many others of that time that preceded the "garden cemetery" movement. Unfortunately the marble has weathered badly and the inscriptions on the monuments to many who helped shape the emerging suburb are hardly legible: the grid delineating the private family plots is barely discernible.
The City owns two other historic burying grounds: one in the so-called West Parish dates from 1781, the other known as the South or Evergreen cemetery from 1802.