Unbeknownst to many, the Old North Church houses in its basement a crypt containing approximately 1,100 burials. From 1732 to 1860 the church interred congregants below its very floor boards as a way to meet the burial demands of the congregation while also taking advantage of all available space that the church possessed. In the basement, thirty-seven separate brick vaults comprise the tombs in each of which twenty to forty full coffins could be deposited. Although the Church retained ownership of many of the tombs to accommodate individual burials, some entire tombs were privately purchased, but regardless of ownership many were reused!
A growing population in the early 19th Century greatly increased burial demands, forcing the Church to get creative with how they utilized its Crypt. Initially the Old North Church began to open privately owned tombs to public burials so that individuals could purchase space, but this still did not alleviate the situation. Starting in the mid-1800s the Church simply began to reuse tombs that had been previously filled; full tombs were swept clean of their contents with remains being reinterred in the “charnel pit,” a large brick lined pit located behind the church. Once the tombs were cleared there was plenty of free room for new burials through which the church could raise revenue.
However, as one could imagine, the crypt was by no means a pleasant place to spend one’s time. Despite the tombs being fully enclosed, this did not prevent the stench of decomposing corpses from escaping into the passageways of the crypt and up into the church. Adding to the spread of the crypt’s smell are air vents located below the windows of the church that allow air to circulate in and out of the crypt, and sometimes up into the church!
By the mid-1800s it was clear that not only Old North’s crypt but all crypts in the city of Boston posed a health risk to the population. In light of this, the city of Boston ordered all crypts sealed and burials to stop in 1853. However, the church resisted change, with church authorities avowing not to stop burials “unless compelled to do so.” This finally came in 1860 and in that year all of Old North’s tombs were sealed up for good, though they were resealed again in 1912.
Today when one walks down into the basement of the church they can see the tombs as they were sealed decades ago. The brick vaults, some adorned with plaques in memory of those buried, have many stories to tell about 18th and 19th century Boston and the people who lived there. Anyone interested in visiting the crypt has the opportunity to do so via the Old North Foundation’s daily Behind the Scenes Tour, details of which can be found at: http://oldnorth.com/btstours/. Plus, we’re hosting a special after-hours tour of the crypt for young professionals on Thursday, October 27, 2016 at 6pm.
All information presented in this article is taken from the only academic study of Old North’s Crypt, “Of the Lonely Belfry and the Dead: An Historical and Archaeological Study of the Burial Crypts of Boston’s Old North Church” by Jane Lyden Rousseau.