37 Tombs, 1100 Souls

Most people visit the Old North Church to learn about the defining moment in its history: the night of April 18th, 1775 when two lanterns were lit in the steeple. These signal lanterns commenced a series of rides and alarms by messengers who spread all throughout the countryside calling the militia to arms. Because of Paul Revere’s daring ride and because of the lanterns displayed in the steeple of the Old North Church, various Massachusetts militias were warned and able to mount a defense against the British regulars the next morning. This battle, the Battle of Lexington and Concord, became the first armed engagement of the American Revolution.

This event is not however the extent of the Old North’s history. Many antiques adorn the church sanctuary and every single one has a good story behind it. What is not in plain sight to the average visitor is the crypt beneath the church that houses 37 tombs that contain 1,100 bodies. No one of the famous stature as Paul Revere or John Hancock is buried in the crypt; these are more ordinary Bostonians of middle to upper class income. Amongst the 1,100 bodies in the crypt are ministers, vestrymen, smallpox victims, and British soldiers who died at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

The first tomb that was commissioned to be built was in 1732; 9 years after the church’s founding. Crypt burial was common amongst churches in the 18th Century as the church would not have to buy a separate plot of land to bury its congregants. Also, the church could charge what they liked for burials and not be regulated by city rules that went along with cemetery burials. The way the tombs were set up was to essentially section off the basement with brick walls into little rooms and have people buried inside of them. People were placed in coffins that were stacked on top of each other until the tomb was filled up. Most of the tombs were for families and would usually house no more than 20 coffins.

As the church continued to profit from crypt burials and the tombs began to fill up, the problem arose as to how to accommodate more bodies. Starting in 1849, a process of removal was decided upon. The older tombs that contained by this time nothing but decaying skeletal remains were slated for removal. Coffins were taken out of tombs; the remains of the individual were swept up, and put into a much smaller box. These boxes were then placed in a charnel pit in close proximity to the crypt and new people could be interred in the old tombs.

Burial beneath the church would not continue long after this though. In 1853, the city passed a law that forbade the use of crypts underneath public building; citing health concerns and the spread of disease. This did not sit well with the authorities of the church. They were making too much money to quit! The vestry of the church decided they would not obey the law unless “compelled to do so”. Numerous ensuing internments took place but finally in 1860 the practice stopped. No further burials occurred in Christ Church. To be sure no family would insist upon burial in their ancestral tombs, the church revoked ownership of the tombs and removed their titles. The tombs were even sealed up with cement to make sure further internments would not happen.

Despite these hidden treasures being veiled underneath the floor, these tombs are accessible to the public during most months of the year. The Old North Church offers a Behind the Scenes Tour that allows visitors to visit the bell-ringing chamber and crypt for only $5. Though not as grand and fancy as crypt burials in Europe, the Old North Church crypt allows visitors to see how regular Bostonians were buried in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Upon discovering that the crypt exists, most visitors are just “dying” to see it.

The Crypts Beneath the Old North Church

The Crypts Beneath the Old North Church

The Crypts Beneath the Old North Church

The Crypts Beneath the Old North Church