Thirty-seven historic tombs that lie below the Old North Church in Boston, most of which have been untouched since 1860, were reopened last week as part of a four-month renovation and preservation project.
“This is very important for the structural integrity of the tombs and the preservation of the crypt in general,” said Nikki Stewart, executive director of Old North Illuminated, the nonprofit that operates Old North Church and Historic Site. “It’s much overdue.”
The project, which has been in the works since 2016, will entail repointing and replacing bricks, as well as restoring the tomb doors, Stewart said. A ramp will also be added to make the crypt accessible to more visitors, she said. The tombs were reopened on Feb. 16.
The iconic church, built in 1723, is best known for its role in Paul Revere’s fateful midnight ride on April 18, 1775. The sexton and the vestryman climbed the church’s steeple and held high two lanterns to signal to Revere that the British were headed to Lexington and Concord, according to Old North Illuminated.
But for Stewart, there’s more to the church than its place in revolutionary history. The crypt is a testament to that.
“Throughout history, the lives and experiences of everyday people matter, just as much as the people that we think of as historically famous,” Stewart said. “Death and mourning is a part of everyone’s life, it’s a common experience that we share today with people in the past.”
For the Church of England congregants, a consecrated burial space was critical, Stewart said. But there was never space for a graveyard, so instead, they looked below. The crypt was built in 1732, and dozens of tombs were added over the next century. It’s estimated that about 1,100 people were buried there, according to Old North Illuminated.
Officials had always believed that the last burial took place in 1860, but last Friday, a new discovery was made.
“We did observe [Friday], a plate on a coffin that’s dated 1877, so that is new information,” Stewart said. “And what’s interesting is that the City of Boston passed an ordinance prohibiting indoor burials in 1850 — this is 27 years after that.”
The restoration will be completed in conjunction with archaeologists and the National Park Service, Stewart said. The majority of the preservation work will be done to the exterior sections of the tombs, as to not disturb any remains.
“There is still a congregation here, and the people who are buried in the crypt are part of that congregation,” Stewart said. “There is very much a spiritual connection, and it is absolutely still a sacred space.”
A key portion of the project is restoring the tombs’ wooden doors, which were coated in plaster in 1912, according to the church. At the time, officials believed it was the best way to preserve the ornate entrances, Stewart said. It also may have helped reduce the smell of the decomposing bodies, she said.
The doors have been removed, and the tombs’ entrances have been temporarily covered with plywood. While the crypt will remain closed for the duration of the project, the rest of the church will continue normal operations and be open to visitors, according to Old North Illuminated.
As archaeologists reexamine the storied grounds, new discoveries are in the making. Stewart said one of the most striking findings so far were the remains of a woman buried in still-intact stockings.
“This happened at a time when she was probably dressed at home by one of their family members. Placing those stockings on that individual was really one of the last acts of love and caring that someone did for them,” Stewart said. “I think that really humanizes the people that are in there.”
Kate Armanini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @KateArmanini.