Quaker Cemetery (Friends Burial Ground)

When Robert Lowell wrote in his poem, The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket, of “this field of Quakers in their unstoned graves,” he was referring to the practice of returning human remains to the earth with no marker of any kind at the place of interment. Roland B. Hussey recalled that the body of the deceased was laid out in a sheet and placed in a white pine coffin “devoid of paint or stain or the smell of flowers,” transported in an unadorned tip-cart to the burial ground, and—on occasion—laid in the earth even before all the mourners had arrived.  

The story of a grieving young husband being read out of Quaker Meeting for having planted a rosebush where his wife had been buried may be apocryphal, but thanks to the Quakers’ principle against attachment to earthly remains, the location of Nantucket’s first Quaker burial ground is lost.

The general location was southeast of Maxcy’s Pond and west of the Abiah Folger Franklin Fountain. Both the 1858 Henry Walling map and the 1869 Ferdinand Ewer map place it north of the present Madaket Road, but George F. Worth described the meetinghouse next to the burial ground as “just west of the Elihu Coleman House,” which might put it further south.  After nearly three centuries, there would be nothing left of human remains or raw pine coffins, and that is just as the Quakers (or Friends, as they call themselves) would have wanted it.

Mary Coffin Starbuck had become the bride of Nathaniel Starbuck in 1662 while she was still in her teens and Nathaniel was in his mid-twenties. They became prosperous storekeepers and around 1676 built a house for themselves with a great hall said to hold a hundred people.  Because it could accommodate such a large number, it was used for public gatherings and became known as Parliament House.

In 1702 the couple permitted a visiting Quaker minister to hold a series of meetings in their home.  Such an overflow crowd of the island’s English residents came, that the windows were taken out to permit people standing outside to hear the Quaker message of the Inner Light that dwells within every person.

In the course of these meetings Mary Starbuck was convinced of the truth of the Quaker revelation. Within four years, a Nantucket Friends Meeting had been established and affiliated with both the Newport and Sandwich Quarterly Meetings on the mainland. 

In 1709 Nathaniel Starbuck deeded to the Nantucket Meeting a one-acre lot for a meetinghouse and burial ground, and in return the Proprietors of the Common and Undivided Land compensated him with an acre elsewhere.  The meetinghouse was erected in 1711, and by 1717 so many Nantucketers had become “convinced Friends” that it had to be enlarged.   Burials began already in 1709 and continued to 1760. 

In the autumn of 1717, Mary Starbuck—by then known as the Great Woman—died and was buried in the original Friends Burial Ground. The next year her son-in-law, Nathaniel Barnard Sr., was buried there, as was Friend Stephen Hussey, and in 1719 Nathaniel Starbuck’s remains were interred there. In accordance with Quaker principles, no effort was made to lay him next to where Mary’s remains had been buried. Friend James Gardner, who died in 1723, and his mother Sarah, who followed him in death in 1724, went into the same ground.  It is unknown how many Friends’ remains were so buried, although an estimate of about two hundred has been offered.

The island’s English population was increasing exponentially, and the dominant form of worship was Quakerism. During this time of rapid growth, the town migrated from its original site eastward in the direction of the Great Harbor. Even after its expansion, the first Friends meetinghouse was too small, and it had been left behind on the periphery of the town.  In 1731 a new meetinghouse with burial ground was established at the corner of what was then Main Street and Grave Street, now Madaket Road and Quaker Road.  In 1732 the first burial at this new site was of Friend Charles Clasby.

The original burial ground could still be located, despite the absence of grave markers or a fence, because the disused first meetinghouse still stood there. Fire destroyed the building in 1736, however, and in time the first Friends burial ground was lost, just as the Friends would have wanted it to be.

Quakers cultivated as little attachment to their plain places of worship as they did to the remains of their departed.  In 1792 they demolished the meetinghouse they had built in 1731 and re-used the materials in constructing an even larger one at the corner of Main and Pleasant Streets.  In the same year, they erected yet another meetinghouse on Broad Street for Friends living on the North Shore.

With the removal of the meetinghouse, there was room for yet more burials in the field we know today variously as the Quaker Cemetery, the Quaker Burying Ground, the Quaker Grave Yard, and the Friends Burial Ground.  Now fenced, it appears to be an empty, hilly field with only a small group of headstones along the Madaket Road side.

Appearances are deceiving.  Of the long-time sexton of Nantucket’s Society of Friends, Eliphalet Paddack, it was said that by the time his tenure as sexton finally came to a close in 1823, “Uncle Liphey” had buried more bodies in the Friends Burial Ground than there were living on the island at the end of the 1800s.  Roland B. Hussey wrote that, “Our forefathers conveyed to their last resting place in the Quaker Burying Ground the remains of hundreds (I shall be safe in saying thousands) of their departed, which were given to the earth without mark to show the families where they were laid.”  It is probably safe to say that remains of five thousand Friends were buried in the apparently empty field.

And what of the headstones along the north side? A sign at the corner explains: “In the major section of this cemetery are interred the thousands of Orthodox Friends noted for their belief that grave stones were a part of idolatry. The few markers in this plot were placed by the Hicksite and Gurnyite Quakers, known by the earlier group as Heretical Friends.”

The schisms that rent Quakerism in the 1800s led to mutual disownments of Wilburites and Gurnyites and most especially of Hicksites, until factionalization led to the extinction of Quakerism on Nantucket.  The Meeting was “laid down” and not restored for many decades.

The orthodox Quakers might have expelled living “heretics” from their meetinghouses, but in death the Hicksites shared burial space with them. After all, earthly remains were of no consequence, and besides, there were hardly any Friends of any stripe left to object.

Considering the nonnegotiable stand Friends took against armed conflict, it is remarkable that there appears to be a Civil War veteran interred among them.   According to records kept by the Nantucket chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic, John S. Chase, who served in the Union Navy, was buried in the Friends Burial Ground.  There is no headstone for him, but among the Hicksite headstones are ones for five other members of the Chase family. John S. Chase, son of Benjamin Chase and Ann Swain Chase, was born in 1831 and went to sea on whalers both before and after his military service.  He never married, and at age 45 he died after a “fall from aloft.”

The significance of John Chase’s life and death would not have been lost on poet Robert Lowell, who mused mightily about the paradox of pacifist Quakers engaging in bloody combat with mighty marine mammals, and who dedicated his anti-war poem about this particular burial ground to his cousin, “Warren Winslow, Dead at Sea.” 

This description is excerpted from Nantucket Places and People 4: Underground by Frances Ruley Karttunen (2010).