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Cemeteries Make Cents

Opinion | April 2, 2018

In my last year at Tufts, I’ve found myself spending much of my time in four of Boston’s Historical Cemeteries. However, my research focused more on the living that walk along the cobbled paths and pause to read signs or work to decipher the more illegible of the 300 year-old stones. Reined in by iron fences and gates, these areas for the dead are made inaccessible to the living outside of a specifically allotted time frame, as set by the city. However, more than the actual graves, pennies, stones, and flowers—objects the living leave behind in these spaces—have become a major part of my understanding of these cemeteries.

My thesis through the Anthropology Department began with a whole flurry of questions surrounding cemeteries and how they can become tourist attractions rather than just quiet spaces with jagged headstones. Understanding the steps taken by the city of Boston to make some historical cemeteries more appealing than others can help give some insight into what the city believes people want to see in these spaces of the dead. Three of the four cemeteries I study—Granary Burying Ground, Kings Chapel Burying Ground, and Copp’s Hill Burying Ground—lie along Boston’s Freedom Trail and are crawling with visitors throughout their open hours. In contrast, the Central Burying Ground is not a stopping point along the Trail and has thus for all of my visits has been vacant of any life, save the squirrels that make their homes in the leaf-strewn lawn. A cemetery could be marked with historical value, but everything from the identities of those buried there to the physical appearance of the area has the potential to either draw passersby in or warn them away.

The marks people leave in these cemeteries are sometimes unintentional—for example, the trash left behind or blown into the gated cemeteries from the busy street by Boston’s notoriously strong winds. Yet, each left item says much about the cemetery. A mark that feels more intimate and deliberate is the act of placing pennies and other coins upon the headstones of individuals long since passed away. When I started my research, I almost didn’t see these coins as important. I had no individuals to whom I could attribute their placement, and I had no way to ask anyone why they left these markers behind. I had an action, a message, but I had no living people to associate it with.

The reasons people choose to place pennies and other small objects onto headstones could be as varied as the visitors themselves. As I was stopping to take notes in King’s Chapel Burial Ground, I heard a man commenting on the coins to the woman he was walking with, telling her, “You can only place the pennies if you’re also…” before he moved into a crowd of people and his voice and message were lost. This was one of the many times in my research when I’d almost gotten a grip on information, and then lost it just as quickly. In class, they don’t tell you that sometimes research can look like sitting alone surrounded by cold, weather-beaten headstones and their own blankness.

That people leave pennies for the dead is interesting considering the relatively recent elimination of the penny by Canadian governments and the suggestions that the United States do the same. Pennies have developed their own sort of significance in the United States in a way that other coins have not: Take a Penny, Leave a Penny; a Lucky Penny; a Penny for your Thoughts; and a slew of other sayings and attributions that are placed upon our only copper coin. But the visitors that stroll through the King’s Chapel Burial Ground and stop along their way at the horizontal grave marker of William Dawes Jr.—a member of Paul Revere’s ride—are certainly not penny pinchers, as any time that I visited his grave, the placard would be lined in pennies, arranged intentionally and carefully.

Coins have long relationships with the dead, primarily to ease their journey through the afterlife or as an acknowledgement that someone has visited and paid respects. In this way, the original economic value of the coin itself is relatively unimportant, though it is significant to note that the penny has the lowest worth of any monetary marker that could be placed. It is certainly not worthless but those with money to spare would consider the penny as next to nothing.

Further, the arrangement of the pennies themselves leaves many unanswered questions. The pennies I often found would be left on highly visible horizontal graves. People wanted their pennies to be seen likely because they were adding to a collection or they sought to start a pile of pennies themselves. On one of my visits, the pennies left on the grave for Lost Sailors in the Copp’s Hill Burial Grounds had been arranged into three crosses; people are unafraid to interact with the coins in hopes of conveying something distinct. There are a number of articles online about living soldiers leaving different denominations of coins on headstones of fallen comrades to convey “messages” to the family, but considering the nature of these historic graves, and unless the Freedom Trail tour guides actually tell the truth when they mention that they are exhumed Boston citizens, these pennies serve more simply as a connection to the dead.

On what must be a semi-regular schedule, the pennies and stones and flowers are cleared away from the headstones to maintain an air of cleanliness and avoid the clutter, I’ve come to assume. I’ve never seen anyone actually do this, as it likely occurs after hours during other routine maintenance, but there is something that feels striking and lonely in knowing that the people who left the pennies and stones were often never expecting to return and check on their offering, their mark, but that it was swept away all the same. My hope and assumption about collected coins is that much like the small fees paid for a guided tour on the Freedom Trail, the funds go back into preserving these spaces as ones that tourists want to visit: keeping the dead areas of Boston open for viewing and appealing to visitors by utilizing their own unintentional contributions.

The government organizations in charge of maintaining and making adjustments to Boston’s historical cemeteries are critical to the continued interactions between the public and the cemeteries. But over the course of my research, I have found that those individuals not employed by the city government become endlessly more impactful to the atmosphere and state of the cemeteries: from the daily movement of tourists who drop everything from stones to pennies to trash and often hold only a passing interest in the formation of these spaces to Jimmy, the Boston local who sits outside of the Granary Burial Ground every day to distribute laminated booklets with all the information he has accumulated that he feels the city has left out. It is those traveling through and those that seek more meaning from these spaces that actually shape the atmosphere using copper coins and small stones.