As the Director of City Cemeteries, I have a particular fondness for North Burial Ground (NBG), but here I am writing as a resident of Providence and cemetery enthusiast with my own personal beliefs, why cemeteries matter, and how cemeteries can be transformational spaces in our cities.
My love for cemeteries goes all the way back to childhood. My mom is Mexican and my dad is Italian, so I come from two cultures that go all out in our death and burial rituals. From visiting the cemetery in California where all of my relatives were buried after they left Mexico and building ofrendas in our home for Día de Los Muertos, to visiting ossuary chapels in Italy decorated with the bones of priests and monks, and finally to cutting class in high school to visit Bruce Lee’s grave and hang out with my friends (sorry mom), I’ve always been drawn to cemeteries.
When I first moved to New England, I visited as many of the famous cemeteries that I learned about in my historical archaeology classes as I could: the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in Boston, Mt. Auburn in Cambridge, Cole’s Hill in Plymouth, Charter Street Cemetery in Salem, and Swan Point here in Providence. North Burial Ground holds its own against these more famous cemeteries. It’s a really special place, and I would love it even if I didn’t live here. I want to share three themes that guide my own professional practice as a cemeterian, and how I see these themes unfolding at North Burial Ground.
Death and Memorialization Matter
North Burial Ground is both an amazing historic, cultural, and natural resource, but most importantly it is still an active, contemporary burial place. America may not have a single culture around death, especially in a culturally diverse city like Providence, but as a country we are not comfortable with death. There is an education deficit around end-of-life care and products, and we can find the “norms” of funerals, cremations, burials and memorialization to be inscrutable. Our city cemetery helps make the death planning process easier by accepting people as they are, embracing cultural diversity, and tailoring our policies to allow for individual and cultural expression. At North Burial Ground you might see brightly decorated graves, solar lights, pinwheels, or an eternal flame candle. You’ll see headstones that aren’t shaped like traditional headstones, a variety of languages, and beautiful portraits of the deceased. You might see a funeral with a procession made up of hundreds of cars and hear “I’ll be Missing You” by P. Diddy, or a small family gathering where folks are laughing as much as they are crying. You might see a military gun salute, or hear prayers and songs in Armenian, Greek, Spanish, Arabic. This “come-as-you-are” approach to burial at NBG can help mitigate the stress of burial and memorialization for grieving families.
Cemeteries are People, and People Make History
There is nowhere else like a cemetery to encounter history. Visiting a cemetery makes the trends and themes you learn in a history class very real. For example, in NBG you can “meet” Stephen Hopkins, the signer of the Declaration of Independence. At Hopkins’ gravesite you’ll see how he wanted to be remembered, who he is buried with, and who his family members were. You’ll also see that he’s buried adjacent to enslaved and free Black community members. Standing in the fifty feet of space between Hopkins’ obelisk and the monument to Charles Haskell, a Black soldier of the American Revolution, you are compelled to think about the contradiction between the words of the Declaration of Independence and the lives of people like Yarrow whose stone lists his name as “Yarrow-an African.”
The idea that history is a collection of the actions of past individuals and cultures comes alive when you stand at a grave where hundreds of years ago a family and community gathered to inter someone they loved, where that same family might have returned, year after year to remember them. With over 100,000 individuals interred at NBG, there is an infinite number of stories to encounter.
I believe that healthy communities have healthy cemeteries not only for the families of the deceased, but also for the community at large. Places like NBG provide space for outdoor encounters with nature and culture in ways that strengthen individuals and our communities. Our city cemeteries sponsor educational initiatives like Death Cafés, designed to help open conversations around death and end-of-life care and planning. There’s a book club that explores death and cemeteries from diverse perspectives. You can get together with your neighbors to volunteer on Earth Day or at one of NBG’s “Earth Day is Every Day” events if you want support the natural environment in Providence. You should come to the Día de Los Muertos celebration hosted in partnership with Rhode Island Latino Arts. Come clean headstones, try new art forms, listen to music, take a walk in the moonlight, picnic like a Victorian, and “meet” NBG’s notable residents on tours.
When we invest our time and volunteer hours into the spaces that bring us together, especially around the “big things” like death, our relationship to the natural world, the hard histories at the heart of our country, the ripple effect can make big changes. I want to invite you, as a neighbor and hopefully new friend, to get involved at NBG. You’ll meet all sorts of people (both living and dead) with incredible passions and stories to tell.
Connect with North Burial Ground:
Facebook and Instagram: @pvdnorthburialground
Annalisa Heppner, M.A. is a former archaeologist turned cemetery director, living and working in Providence with her dog Melba. She is on the board of both the Rhode Island Cemetery Association and the New England Cemetery Association. She is passionate about cemeteries and their intersection of natural and cultural history. Part of her personal mission is to create opportunities for individuals to engage with Death Positivity in an approachable way.