Copp's Hill Burying Ground is -- as it should be -- an oasis of quiet in the heart of Boston's North End. The second-oldest cemetery in the city, it lies atop Copp's Hill, easternmost of the three hills of the Shawmut Peninsula, overlooking the Charles River and nearby Charlestown. It is the last northbound stop on the Freedom Trail prior to crossing the Charles, and lies just up the hill from Old North Church.
William Copp (1589-1670), the site's namesake, was a shoemaker originally from Warwickshire, England, who emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay colony. Copp once owned land on the Shawmut Peninsula overlooking the Charles River to the North, and Boston Harbor to the east. The site was first used as a grain mill because its height enabled windmills to more easily catch ocean breezes. Copp later bought the hill from the millers, and when Copp and his wife died in 1670, they were interred there. The site then became a burying ground for the town of Boston. It has remained so since, though the last entombment occurred in 1987 (in-ground burials ceased in the nineteenth century). During the American Revolution, the British used Copp's Hill to defend the Charles and to shell Colonial positions on Breed's Hill across the river. The top of the hill is probably about a mile as the crow flies from the Bunker Hill monument.
The political who's who of Boston are buried at the Granary and King's Chapel Burying Grounds downtown, while Copp's Hill is largely a resting place for Boston's merchants and artisans. However, its most famous resident is Cotton Mather, Puritan minister and theologian, and his father, Increase Mather, who was president of Harvard College for a time. Also buried there is Robert Newman, a sexton of Old North Church. Newman hung two lanterns in the Church's steeple on the night of April 18, 1775, a signal to Paul Revere that British regulars were crossing the Charles by boat to march on Concord.
Visiting Copp's Hill
When I go into Boston, I usually bypass the historical sites nearest Park Street, and take the T to Government Center. It's convenient, close to Quincy Market, and near Boston Harbor. I like to start hiking the North End at Columbus Park, but it's well off the Freedom Trail sidewalk marker.
One way to go is north on Richmond, right on Hanover, and then walk through the Revere Mall to the Old North Church and Hull Street. The Burying Ground is straight up the hill from the Church.
Copp's Hill Burying Ground is in an inaccessible part of Boston unless you're on foot. Sidewalks are generally brick and/or uneven concrete, so they're not very good for people with mobility issues. (The cemetery itself requires a climb up a short-but-steep set of stairs, so if you're in a wheelchair, you're really out of luck.) The streets are generally narrow and one-way, and parking requires a resident permit. The one and only time I took a trolley tour with visiting family, the bus stopped on Commercial Street and let people off to walk up Hull Street on their own. Seriously, just walk if you can, it won't kill you.
If you take the route I suggest, you should take a very leisurely walk along the Revere Mall, site of that famous statue of Paul Revere on a horse, and if possible, you should take a tour of Old North Church as well.
The Burying Ground itself is a good place to stop, rest, and enjoy the quiet of the North End, barring any tour groups of screaming kids (or adults, as I experienced yesterday. Oy.) It's in a residential neighborhood, so you're surrounded by old brick buildings on three sides; the north side has a reasonably clear view of the Charles River and Charlestown. Yesterday was hot and humid in the city, but just as in the days of the mill, there was a nice breeze blowing and it was quite pleasant in the shade of a tree.
There are a few informational signs dotted around the grounds, particularly to point out the famous graves (like Cotton Mather), but you should get a good look at all of the gravestones. Many of the old headstones from the 17th and 18th centuries are quite interesting, and as with many older cemeteries, you can see the evolution of design and symbolism through time. Note: making rubbings of gravestones is prohibited. Many stones are in a delicate condition, and rubbing can accelerate their deterioration. If you have qualms about photographing tombstones, please be satisfied with your memory.
Once you've gotten your fill of the place, you might as well continue on to Charlestown Navy Yard. Continue down Hull Street, make a left onto Commercial, and cross the Washington Street Bridge. There's a red Freedom Trail stripe on the sidewalks which you can easily follow.
Oh, my aching feet!