An interest in cemeteries is considered a bit morbid. After all, their very existence acknowledges the gruesome reality of death, which is always sad and sometimes scary and spooky. But for “cemetery lady” Kelly Thomas, graveyards are very much alive – a cultural repository of colonial history, tombstone art, funerary practices, and genealogical information. Thomas is cemetery preservationist for 16 different burying grounds in Boston, including the illustrious Granary, King’s Chapel, and Copp’s Hill. Thomas has spent the last decade as the passionate caretaker of the Historic Burying Grounds Initiative, a public/private cooperative program in the Boston Parks and Recreation Department that dates back to the early 1970’s. She spoke with Globe correspondent Cindy Atoji Keene about her mission to document, restore and interpret Boston’s historic cemeteries, which date between 1630 and 1841 and are located in 13 Boston neighborhoods.
The Historic Burying Grounds Initiative started in around the Bicentennial, when officials noticed the appealing conditions of the city’s burying grounds. There was graffiti everywhere, overgrown plants, crumbling masonry, and disintegrating tombs and crypts. The worst of the worst has been addressed but the work is never done. Some of the headstones, for example, are from the 1600s, and we’re losing the battle against time with these. They’re in remarkably good condition, considering how old they are, but once a crack forms, it usually requires intervention. Conservation treatment on a headstone lasts 10 or 20 years but with 12 thousand headstones, there’s always something to do. I find these old headstones fascinating, because where else can you touch something made by a craftsman in, say, 1670? Usually it’s behind glass in a museum.
I didn’t start out with an interest in cemeteries; I studied historic preservation and have always loved stone in particular. It’s a fortuitous coincidence that this job involves a lot of granite and slate; I’m intrigued by the touch and feel of stone and its ancient lineage. My favorite tombstone is in the Granary, John Wakefield, 1667. He died gruesomely, splitting his head open; ironically, I did some genealogy work and found out that he’s one of my ancestors.
Has this job changed the way I think about death? It might seem obvious, but I’ve become aware of how many dead people there are. In many of historic burying grounds, people were buried four deep. Maybe for me death has become a little less scary in an theoretical way, since I “see” dead people every day. My colleagues like to joke that I should get feedback or opinions about my projects from the cemetery “residents”. But they never seem to say anything to me.