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North Burial Ground Project

The North Burial Ground (NGB) is one of the largest land holdings in the city of Providence. It is Providence’s oldest public cemetery and serves as the final resting place for more than 100,000 of our ancestors, including scores of notable residents. It also houses over three centuries of artistic headstones, memorials, and tombs, exhibiting symbolic meanings and intrigue that provide a rich history of Providence and its inhabitants. The design, layout, and display of Gothic, Baroque, Beaux-Arts, and Federal architectural features offer visitors an education in that field as well.

On June 10, 1700 the Providence Town Meeting designated 43/45 acres of land located in the northerly section of town for militia training and ten acres in the southern portion of the parcel, situated between present day North Main Street and Branch Avenue, for a town burial ground. The first interment occurred in 1711 with the burial of prominent resident Samuel Whipple .

Prior to this time, colonists buried their dead in family graveyards that haphazardly peppered the Providence landscape. As Providence’s townspeople sought more efficient use of land, the tradition of family graveyards declined. In 1785, scores of family graves were relocated to the NBG to make way for improvements to Benefit Street on Providence's East Side. Since the practice of relocating graves to formal cemeteries and demand for land continued, the town increased the size of the NBG over the years. The first notable expansion of the NBG occurred in 1796 when the town council purchased eight acres from Moses Brown.

The nineteenth century proved to be a time of both growth and setbacks for the NBG. In the 1810s, grave desecration became an alarming civic problem. Throughout the state, various medical students and doctors allegedly unearthed fresh graves in order to use the corpses for medical experiments. In 1817, the General Assembly passed a detailed decree to preserve and protect the burial ground from desecraters.

When Providence became a city in 1832, officials allocated more resources to the NBG. Up until the early 1830s, an estimated 60,000 bodies were randomly buried without official documentation. In response, the city established the North Burial Ground Commission to administer the cemetery. In 1845, the commissioners planned out roads and walkways, priced lots, imposed more regulations, and established the NBG sinking fund for the maintenance, improvements, and solvency of the cemetery. In 1848, the city mandated detailed records for all interments and required commissioners to submit annual NBG activity and financial reports.

The city wanted to expand the NBG as well but land purchases and exchanges sometimes created legal disputes. In 1846, the city purchased about 40 acres of the Randall estate on the easterly border of the NBG. However the heirs of the Randall Estate sued the city regarding the terms of the agreement and use of the property. Only in 1876 did the city settle the dispute with the stipulations that burials were prohibited on the Randall property and the land be used instead as a public park.

Also during the 19th century, organizations such as the Monthly Meeting of Friends (1854), the Providence Police Association (1880), the Providence Association of Firemen for Mutual Assistance (1888), and the Society for the Home for Aged Colored Women (1892) purchased sections of the NBG for their fraternities. This trend demonstrated society’s changing ideas about communal relationships and civic responsibility to provide for the needy.

During the mid-nineteenth century, ideas about death and one's final resting place evolved to emphasize beauty and tranquility. The popular rural cemetery movement encouraged society to use burial grounds as public parks and garden landscapes. Yet in these years the NBG remained disorganized and in need of substantial renovation. In 1875, the commission reported that due to insufficient funding, over 300 bodies remained in the receiving tomb. The same year, because available plots in Potter’s Field (for paupers) were rapidly decreased, the NBG commission advised the city to obtain more land on the western border. Although many acres at the NBG were still available, the commission recommended that ‘valuable land’ should not be used to bury the poor. In response to these financial and administrative challenges, the city council assumed total control of revenue accounts for NBG in 1892.

During these years, city officials also worked to improve the NBG’s standing in the community. It received much needed improvements, including a marble staircase, an office, and an enlarged greenhouse. In 1883, the city conducted an elaborate dedication ceremony for the unveiling of the monument to Canonicus, the Narragansett sachem who fought English colonists during King Phillip's War, attended by an estimated one thousand people. The NBG commissioners expressed a renewed pride in making the cemetery an aesthetically revered public space. In 1902, the commission received $30,000 for a new and enlarged receiving tomb. After inspecting other receiving tombs in the Northeast and collecting several architectural design plans, they selected a Beaux-Arts design. By 1907, the NBG employed 33 full time workers and had conducted over 31,000 burials since 1848.

In the twentieth century, the NBG continued to have its ups and downs. Attention to the NBG continued during the Great Depression when the New Deal's Works Progress Administration funded additional workers to help care for the grounds and make improvements. However by the 1940s, the city reduced the NBG budget, cutting labor and maintenance. Over the next several decades, the condition of the ground declined and damage by vandals increased. In the 1960s, the construction of Interstate 95 required the relocation of several graves in the northwest corner of the NGB. In the 1980s, the city moved the Canonicus monument to Hoyle Square and soon after it sustained damage from a traffic accident. The city removed the damaged monument and since that time its location is unknown. The most recent major improvement to the NBG occurred in 1999 when the Rhode Island Armenian community expanded the impressive Armenian Martyrs Memorial at the NBG entrance.

Today, the NBG continues to serve the present and the past. It remains an active cemetery conducting an average of 200 burials per year. For the surrounding community, the NBG provides a spacious public space where many people enjoy the grounds and browse tombstone inscriptions. At the same time, the NBG represents an important historical landmark that provides a wellspring of educational resources. History, art, and genealogy enthusiasts study, photograph, and preserve the cemetery’s attributes and educators use the cemetery to teach students about Rhode Island’s history.

Michelle Valletta, M.A. Rhode Island College