The independent student newspaper of Northeastern University

The Huntington News

The independent student newspaper of Northeastern University

The Huntington News

The independent student newspaper of Northeastern University

The Huntington News



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Beneath the steeple: A glimpse into the crypt of Boston’s oldest standing church

Underneath the historic Old North Church in the North End lies a crypt home to an estimated 1,100 individuals laid to rest. When the crypt opened in 1732, it acted as an active burial location for Old North’s congregants, as the church did not have a graveyard. Officials once believed that all of the tombs were sealed after 1860, tucking away the history of the time with those buried there. During recent restoration work, however, a coffin was found dating back to to 1870s.

After being closed for 10 months for restoration, the crypt is now open to the public and can be accessed through guided tours. These crypt tours, led by one of Old North’s educators, not only give visitors a glimpse into the church’s history of burials but also give insight into the lives, religion and burial practices of past Bostonians. The tour guides have specific talking points that they reference for each tour. Whether someone is interested in delving more into the crypt’s history or just looking for a fun adventure to add to a spooky season bucket list, a crypt tour can be a wonderfully intriguing and educational experience. 

Tickets are $10 per person, which also includes general admission to the sanctuary. Exploring the Old North Church before or after exploring the crypt can enhance the overall historic experience, as the church itself is steeped in United States history. Available dates and times can be found on Old North’s online schedule.

The doors to the Old North Church crypt reside facing Bigelow Courtyard behind the main entrance to the church. Beyond these doors sat 37 tombs, which followed the walking aisles of the church directly above. (Sofia Sawchuk)
A light within the crypt’s open tomb illuminates the historic coffins found inside, with a coffin most likely for a child propped up against an assumed adult coffin in the bottom left corner. The open tomb was available for pictures and viewing. (Sofia Sawchuk)

This open tomb was found to be only half as deep as the other tombs in the crypt; the open space was repurposed to become a reflection or prayer space in the 19th century. It is believed that there are coffins still located behind its back wall. Coffins like those found in the open tomb vary in size, as they were made to measure each person buried and served different purposes. The smaller coffins were identified as being made for children. Some had spaces for “viewing windows” that would fit panes of glass that allowed individuals to see the deceased before they were moved into the crypt.

The tombs in the Old North crypt, including the open tomb, are believed to be capable of holding nearly 25 coffins. Stacked on top of each other in rows, the job of the sexton, or the individual in charge of the church’s upkeep, would have been to shift the coffins’ arrangements to make room for more burials.

A gravestone recently found during restoration work rests on top of a box in the open tomb next to a laminated diagram illustrating how coffins were stacked within the crypt’s tombs. The gravestone, broken into several pieces, was dated to the early 1700s and appeared to have been used as a filling or footing underneath the tombs in the crypt. (Sofia Sawchuk)
A tomb sealed with brick sits underneath a grave marker with the name “William Shippard.” Throughout the crypt, only a few tombs had a gravemarker. (Sofia Sawchuk)

Along with the cost to obtain a gravemarker, selling individual spaces along with the tombs was a source of revenue for the Old North Church. Their scarcity has prompted church experts and historians to question the accuracy of the gravemarkers actually matching the names of those buried in the crypt’s tombs. It has been concluded that most families of those residing in the tombs opted not to pay extra for gravemarkers. The expenses tied to burial suggest that those laid to rest in the crypt may have held a higher social status compared to those laid to rest in a public burial ground.

Overhead lights highlight the nooks and crannies in one of the crypt’s hallways while sealed tombs adorn the hallway’s sides. The crypt was built in 1732, nine years after the construction of the church. (Sofia Sawchuk)
A gravemarker for former benefactor Shubael Bell. As the jailor of Suffolk County, Bell contributed to the concept of prison reform early on through his allegedly humane and respectful treatment of prisoners. (Sofia Sawchuk)
Metal bars bolting two tombs shut appear aged and rusty in the crypt’s lights. The unrestored parts of the tombs were believed to be preserved and unopened since the time of their sealing. (Sofia Sawchuk)
Visitation experience manager Julius James points to the gravemarker created for former Old North Church Rev. Dr. Asa Eaton while explaining its history. In addition to a lack of gravemarkers, a lack of records had made it unclear whether certain individuals resided in specific tombs or not. (Sofia Sawchuk)

Eaton was active between 1805-1829, leading the church into an age of growth. He helped establish the first Sunday school in Boston and welcomed a presidential visit from James Monroe in 1817.

James gestures toward a sealed tomb opened in 2017, highlighting how there is no handle on the door. The lack of a handle implied that the sealing of the tomb was long-term, according to James. (Sofia Sawchuk)

The unsealing of this tomb was the first time in over 100 years that it was opened, with the goal of Boston’s archaeological team being to observe the condition of the tomb and its doors. Nobody entered the tomb itself, but helpful observations were made in efforts to gather insight into the history of the tomb. The observations included the shape of coffins and how certain coffins were decorated. Coffins for those taller than the average modern-day person were also noted.

A gravemarker titled “Stranger’s Tomb” is highlighted under the lights. This tomb was for non-church members. (Sofia Sawchuk)
A hallway inside the crypt showcases sealed tombs with different doors and sealing agents like brick, concrete and wood. A variety of materials were used when the tombs were sealed. (Sofia Sawchuk)

In 1853, indoor burials like those within the Old North Church were banned by Boston authorities due to health related concerns. At the time, members of the church met and voted to disregard the new mandate until they were compelled not to. While the church members’ reasoning is up for speculation, in 1860, they eventually agreed to abide by the new ban, leading to the tombs being sealed.

The Old North Church in the North End. The church is Boston’s oldest surviving church to date, which welcomed tourists and visitors alike while being one of its most visited historical sights in the country. (Sofia Sawchuk)

Editor’s note: This story was updated Oct. 31 at 4:05 p.m. to reflect a more accurate history of the crypt.

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