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Old Burying Point Charter Street Cemetery Salem Massachusetts Photography By In The Great Wide Travel Blog

Old Burying Point Cemetery


Come with us as we visit one of the oldest, most haunted cemeteries in all of America: the Old Burying Point at Charter Street Cemetery in Salem, Massachusetts!


CONTENTS



Where is the Old Burying Point?

The Old Burying Point is located at 51 Charter St, Salem, MA 01970, behind the Peabody Essex Museum. It’s also known as the Charter Street Cemetery or Central Burying Point.



How to Get There

MBTA Commuter Rail connects Salem to Boston’s North Station via the Newburyport/Rockport Lines, which takes about half an hour and costs $8 per person each way. We made the mistake of thinking we could load this money onto our Boston transit cards and pay with that when they came around to check tickets on the train, but they didn't accept those and we ended up having to pay twice, essentially. The attendant on the train understood the confusion though, so we weren’t in any trouble.


To avoid making the same mistake when traveling to Salem from Boston, purchase your commuter rail ticket when you arrive at Boston’s North Station from a ticket window or vending machine, in which case you’ll need to know that you’re going from Zone 1A (Boston North Station) to Zone 3 (Salem). You can also purchase your tickets in advance through the MBTA mTicket app for Apple or Android. According to what we’ve read online, buying tickets from the attendant onboard isn’t always an option and may cost you a small additional fee if it is, so you should definitely plan on buying them ahead of time. Here’s a good beginner’s guide to the Commuter Rail System.


Weekend passes are also offered on the Commuter Rail System, which gives you unlimited rides on the train for $10 per person, and are good for Saturday and Sunday. That means if you’re coming to Salem from Boston on a weekend, the weekend pass is cheaper than round-trip tickets!


There are some parking lots and metered parking in Salem if you drive yourself, but be aware that it can be difficult to find on the weekends. Especially in October, Salem’s population grows exponentially, as it’s a popular tourist spot. Here’s a link to the city of Salem’s guide to parking, but we definitely recommend taking the commuter train instead if you can.


If you’re driving, you could also park at the commuter rail station in Beverly, MA and ride the train 5 minutes south (towards North Station) into Salem. Parking at the station is only $2 on the weekends and round-trip commuter rail tickets cost $6.50 per person.


The commuter rail between Boston and Salem or Salem and Beverly runs every 30-60 minutes between 5am and 11pm, so you don’t have to worry about cutting your day short because you have to catch an early train back either!


Once you arrive in Salem, it’s a walking town. The train station is only 5 blocks away from the Old Burying Point, so about a 10-minute walk. On this route, you can walk down a portion of Essex Street, which is the central hub of tourism in the city and also where you’ll find the Peabody Essex Museum located just in front of the cemetery.


Old Burying Point Cemetery In Salem Massachusetts Charter Street Cemetery Review In The Great Wide Pagan Travel Blog

History

The land was first referenced as a cemetery in 1637, making it the second-oldest cemetery in Massachusetts, and one of the oldest cemeteries in the country. Granted, the truly oldest cemetery in the country is debated because there are many burial grounds of indigenous people that usually are not considered for the lists you’ll find when googling “oldest cemeteries in America”, but the King’s Chapel Burying Point was the earliest we could find, which was founded in 1630.


The oldest tombstone in the Old Burying Point dates to 1673, due to the fact that between 1637 and 1673, most of the gravemarkers were etched into wood, as was the English tradition at the time, and the wood did not last through the ages like the stone markers have. There are a few famous people (and relatives of famous people) buried at the Old Burying Point, including:


  • Richard More, the only passenger of the Mayflower with a documented gravesite

  • Simon Bradstreet, one of the founders and governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony

  • Mary Corey, the second wife of Giles Corey, who was pressed to death during the Salem Witch Trials

  • John Hathorne, a magistrate involved in the Salem witch trials, who is also an ancestor of Nathaniel Hawthorne (author of The Scarlet Letter, which most of us Americans had to read in school)

  • Nathaniel Mather, son of Reverend Increase Mather and brother of Reverend Cotton Mather, both of whom were prominent figures in the prosecution and execution of accused witches during the Salem Witch Trials


Note that none of the accused witches from the trials are buried in the Old Burying Point, as they were not allowed Christian burials. Instead, they were buried in a pit by the gallows, although stories claim that family members would sometimes secretly recover their executed loved one’s body and give them a proper burial at their homes.


Salem Witch Trials Memorial Bridget Bishop Stone with Flowers Massachusetts In The Great Wide Travel Blog

In 1992, the Salem Witch Trials Memorial was dedicated adjacent to the Cemetery, 300 years after the Trials, finally giving the 20 executed victims the proper reverence that they deserve. Some visitors now place flowers in the Memorial, which we’ll be covering more in the near future.


Also right next to the Cemetery property is the Grimshawe House, which was built in 1770 and is where Nathanial Hawthorne wooed his future wife, Sophia Peabody (of the Peabody Essex Museum, and who also founded the first kindergarten in America). The Grimshawe House and the Charter Street Cemetery are actually featured in a number of Hawthorne’s works.


Within the Cemetery property is the Pickman house, which was built in 1669, but then was (for some reason) built around and forgotten about, until it was rediscovered during landscaping renovations in the 1960s. It was amazingly well-intact, as it was spared from the harsh weather due to being hidden away for a couple of centuries. 20 years later, in the 1980s, the Peabody Essex Museum bought the house and turned it into the Charter Street Cemetery Welcome Center, which now contains a gift shop with thoughtful souvenirs.


Pickman House Salem Massachusetts Autumn Photography By In The Great Wide Travel Blog

Our Experience

We want to start by saying this: we’d been wanting to visit Salem for a long, long time. Phoebe and I have been fascinated by the Salem Witch Trials for as long as we can remember. We’d had a rough go the previous day, as the Northeast Regional train we were on coming into Boston from Washington, D.C., ended up being delayed five hours due to a bridge fire in Philadelphia. The delay killed our time to wander around Boston the previous afternoon, so we were very much looking forward to getting to Salem and appreciating the sights.


Unfortunately, we were not prepared for what Salem, as a city, has become during the Halloween season: crass commercialization of what was a tragic and watershed moment in the formation of our country. As the day wore on, more and more and more people just kept showing up, making the city very, very crowded. It was incredibly disappointing to see how little respect was shown to the fact that 20 people were executed by their neighbors for false crimes.


We started our day in the Peabody Essex Museum at a (temporary) exhibit that featured actual items and journal pages from those involved in the Trials. It was a somber, reflective exhibit that we were extremely thankful for, as it added a lot to our experience in Salem. It wasn’t terribly busy that early in the day, although we still had to wait a few moments to get into the actual exhibit, but we understand not wanting to have a ton of people crowding into a room with 330-year-old objects. There was a much longer line to get in as we were leaving, though.


Old Burying Point Tombstones With Yellow Daisy Flower Garden Salem Massachusetts In The Great Wide Travel Blog

After the museum, we met up with some local Boston friends that drove up for the day to come see us. We stopped first at the Salem Witch Trials Memorial, which was filled with crowds of people waddling through, barely even looking at the Memorial, obviously not taking in the impact of what it meant. You can plainly see into the Cemetery from the Memorial, but when we wanted to go inside for a closer look… there was a line. To get into a cemetery. It shocked us. When it was our group’s turn to be let in, the attendant gave a speech about staying on the path and not touching the gravemarkers, but upon entering, of course, we saw several people (mostly kids of unaware parents) trampling through the cemetery anyway, not on the path. It was sad to see the disrespect for history, and the attendant who had just given the speech to us not doing anything about it.


Of course, this is a 385-year-old cemetery, and with the popularity of the city during the Halloween season, it makes sense that they should control how many people are allowed in at once and try to control how visitors interact with the space, because it’s the only way to protect the precious history. We are not upset that the city of Salem has taken these precautions and made us wait in a line, but we ARE upset that it’s simply a tourist attraction to most people and not a real cemetery.


Being that there were a limited number of people in the Cemetery, it was quieter and more peaceful, until you came to the perimeter, where a loudspeaker was blaring about tours and how you need to show your ticket, repeated ad nauseum, mixed with music from street vendors selling treats and souvenirs. Although the Cemetery is much smaller than we expected, we ended up spending 20-30 minutes strolling through, stopping to observe the tombstones.


Old Burying Point Marble Tombstone Salem Massachusetts Cemetery Photography By In The Great Wide Travel Blog

It woke up the history nerds in the both of us to see gravemarkers from the late 1600s. We love strolling through cemeteries (the older the better) to make that physical connection to the history of a place. It’s humbling to think about the people who have come before us and the lives they must have lived.


Unique to Charter Street Cemetery (or at least something we’d never seen before) were above-ground tombs that looked like they would hold one person, but we later learned they were actually deep pits that were partially filled with water, and the deceased would be dropped inside (just the body, without a coffin) and the heavy lid put back on, leaving the corpse to deteriorate naturally into the earth. Some of the tombs had dozens of people in them. We walked right past them not knowing what they were, so we were thankful to get this tidbit of knowledge from our guided walking tour later on.


The Charter Street Cemetery routinely ends up on some ‘Most Haunted Places in America’ lists, which is how we found out about it in the first place. There’s stories of faces appearing in the top floor windows of the Pickman House and how coffins poured into the Mexican restaurant next door after a heavy rain, but we’ll be covering more of that in next week’s article.


Grimshawe House Old Burying Point Cemetery Salem Massachusetts Hawthorne House In The Great Wide Travel Blog

How to Get Into the Old Burying Point

Although they were not required when we visited, free timed-entry reservations are now required to enter the Old Burying Point, at least during October. It appears that reservations can only be made day-of and are in 10-minute increments, available through Eventbrite via a link from the Cemetery's website. The Cemetery is only open from 12pm - 3:45pm each day, so plan accordingly.


A Note from Phoebe

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to visit Salem. As a self-identifying Pagan from the age of 11 who grew up in the Bible Belt, I immediately felt a deep personal connection with the story of wrongful persecution during the Salem Witch Trials as I learned about them in grade school. I was commonly called a “witch” and wear that label with pride to this day. It is hard to put into words the disappointment I felt, finally visiting Salem and finding it to be a disgusting display of capitalism. There is a fine line between celebrating witchcraft in a place of such historical significance to witches versus exploiting it for profit, and unfortunately, Salem now does the latter. I am sad to say that it is one of the few places I’ve traveled to that I would be hesitant to visit again, and I can assure you that if and when we go again, it will NOT be in October.


Crooked-Tombstones-Old-Burying-Point-Historic-Haunted-Cemetery-Review-Salem-Massachusetts-In-The-Great-Wide-Pagan-Travel-Blog

Our Verdict

There were definitely positives to visiting Salem, as the history is still there, but do yourself a favor and don’t visit during October. It just becomes a tourist trap with a pervasive sense of overcommercialization that proved to be disappointing to us. Hopefully going in the off-season will allow you to appreciate the history in a more serene setting.


Granite Slate Tombstone Old Burying Point Salem Massachusetts Charter Street Cemetery In The Great Wide Travel Blog Photography

Quick Reference Guide

What

Where

How to Get There

MBTA Commuter Rail connects Salem to Boston’s North Station via the Newburyport/Rockport Lines. There is no public transportation in Salem, but it’s easily walkable. Limited parking is available, so we recommend taking the train there if you can.

Time Commitment

We spent 20-30 minutes strolling through and admiring the tombstones, but I think most people walked through in about 10 minutes.

Cost

Free

Reservation Info

Advanced timed-entry reservations are required at least during October and can be acquired only for same-day visits via a link on the Cemetery’s website. It’s only open from 12pm - 3:45pm every day, so plan accordingly.

Our Verdict

If you’re into the history of the area, avoid Salem during October, as the amount of people there will be overwhelming. Go during the off-season to appreciate it and you’ll probably have the place to yourself.


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Adam Neubauer Travel Writer for In The Great Wide Couple Travel Blog

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