First Church of Jamaica Plain Graveyard Survey
This page contains links to files showing grave descriptions and photographs of the graves in the First Church of Jamaica Plain graveyard on Eliot Street in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.
An index linking last names to burial plot numbers can be found here.
An introduction to the burial ground that follows is adapted from a tour by George Wardle, Church Historian.
Welcome to the First Church in Jamaica Plain – Unitarian Universalist. This church was founded as the Third Parish of Roxbury in 1770 when the colonial town of Roxbury stretched from the Boston Neck to the Dedham line. As Roxbury was populated, new parishes subdivided the town following the areas of settlement. The first parish had its church on Fort Hill near the first settlement, and the second parish was for the western part of town (now known as West Roxbury) with its original church on Peter’s Hill near the graves. Its church building continued to be placed more westward with the center of the population to Centre St. & Church St. and then to Centre St. & Corey St. where it is today. It is called the Theodore Parker Church.
As enough people settled here near the “Great Pond,” they sought their own parish. In order for it to be created they required permission from both of the existing parishes from which it would take territory and tax paying parishioners, and by an act of the colonial legislature. Eventually, the Third Parish was created and the neighborhood of Jamaica Plain was defined.* In the theocracy that was colonial Massachusetts, the boundaries of the Standing Order parishes formed governmental units as well as religious units. Even the Minutemen who fought in the Revolutionary War were organized by these units, and the plaque on the stone next to the Civil War monument honors the men who fought in the Revolution from the “Third Parish of Roxbury.” They were commanded by Captain Lemuel May and his Lieutenant Eleazor Weld.
The first minister, the Reverend Dr. William Gordon (1770-1786), was from England and objected to burials near the church building as unsanitary. Quite a different attitude was held by the second minister, the Reverend Dr. Thomas Gray (1793-1843), who viewed death as a phase in the cycle of life which should be honored near church. He also wanted the community to have a sense of their past with a church yard burial ground. It was during his fifty year ministry, that most of the burials took place.
The older graves are marked with slate stones which are lined up in rough rows like older burial grounds in Boston. But since these graves date from the turn of the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries, the symbols on the stones are less severe than the old Calvinist skull and bone motifs. There is one skull, but it has angel’s wings. Most have the more subtle urn or urn under a willow.
Great changes took place as a result of the rural cemetery movement which held that burial grounds should be pleasant places for the living to visit in a rural landscaped setting. You can clearly see how the graveyard was changed: it was landscaped with retaining walls and crypts, the trees were planted, the stones are more ornamental: marble obelisks, octagons, or with decorative carvings, and the wrought iron fence is installed. The second effect of the rural cemetery movement is that burials stopped happening here as the successful rural cemeteries, Mt. Auburn and Forest Hills became popular. An exception is the burial of the Rev. Dr. Gray who had been encouraged to be buried at Mt. Auburn befitting a man of his importance; however, he believed he should be buried here by this church where he had spent his life’s work.
The Unitarian controversy led to the split of many of the Standing Order churches often with the majority calling a minister from the liberal school and the conservatives pulling out and establishing a Congregational church across the town common. The Congregationalists claimed to be the rightful church founded the same year as the parish church (e.g. Dedham, Milton, Harvard, and Plymouth). Reverend Gray became the minister before the controversy broke out and stayed until 1843 when the religious furor had gone on to other questions. The Jamaica Plain church never split and the whole congregation that Rev. Gray had built up ended in the Unitarian camp. Since it had not undergone a division, the congregation was large and vital enough to need a new building; the old wooden church was removed, and the large stone church was built in 1853 in the “downtown” of the newly created Town of West Roxbury which had seceded from the City of Roxbury in 1851.