An excellent primer before visiting this massive burial ground was “North Burial Ground, Providence, Rhode Island Old Section 1700-1848” by John E. Sterling. Through a lot of time, dedication, and the handy use of modern cemetery software and support of the RI Historical Society, Sterling created a record of burials for the older section. This was a huge undertaking, because although you can access about 16 gigantic books of interment records for about 73,000 individuals, these books only record from 1848 forward – yet the burial ground had been open since 1700! By 1848, there was already 22 acres worth of stones – that’s a lot of unrecorded burials! Sterling’s book, then, provide the vital facts about thousands of Rhode Islanders.
Visiting the North Burial Ground, as you might imagine, is an overwhelming experience. How is one ever to begin? Begin at the beginning, as they say. I normally head for the oldest part of a cemetery anyway, although the “oldest” area here is now surrounded by all sorts of time frames, with family plots giving a huge range of dates.
I had read that several years ago the cemetery was in pretty poor shape, but that through an overall push in the government to bring tourism back to Providence, and dedicated volunteers and asking nicely of the poor underpaid groundskeepers, the ground had been greatly improved. I’d say it worked, everything was neatly manicured, and the sheer size of the place just keeps the mind in a state of awe. Sure, people die – but in the city, there’s a LOT of people who die – which makes for a graveyard so large that you can see stones to the very edge of the horizon.
Generally when I visit a graveyard, I have one of several purposes
1) My own pleasure (sure it’s morbid, but if you are reading this, you know how interesting and FUN it can be)
2) Recording the epitaphs and positions of the stones. This is usually for small graveyards which have been forgotten and are in need of preservation.
3) Recording specific graves. This is usually for my own genealogical research, and involves larger graveyards.
But here at the North Burial Ground, I had no need to document preservation, nor did I particularly have a vested interest in particular lives of the silent community of the citizens of Providence, so instead I could simply focus on the design, the landscape, the humanity and realness of the city within this burial ground.
Usually it is the stories of the lives of people on the stones which strikes me, but here I was fascinated by the artwork. Providence was much more liberal than the Massachusetts towns of the same time, and that allowed for a greater freedom of expression on the stones. Icons and epitaphs still dazzled despite the years, so distinctly different from the usual Puritan stones I am used to studying.
There are just too many stones to absorb. But they are beautiful, and while I do not envy the work John Sterling and those RI chroniclers who went before him, I am in awe of the research they put forth to document the stones in the North Burial Ground. I highly recommend you take a visit there.