Visiting Salem, Mass., Taught Me A Lot About How We Treat The Dead

From the sidewalk I read the sign that hung from cold, iron gate of the cemetery. It stated the year the graves began to be dug, and the name of the land that held them. The sign dictated that The Burying Point in Salem, Massachusetts, the earliest burial ground in the town, contained the graves of those “whose virtues, honors, courage, and sagacity have nobly illustrated the history of Salem.” I looked up from the sign, though, and was disappointed by what I saw.

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The month of October is one of the most beloved months of the year for the gifts that it brings. For some, the gift of autumn is more than enough to celebrate, especially in October when the leaves begin to change color, the nights get colder and there’s an overall crispness felt in the air. Others might see these changes as leaves dying, heating costs rising, and cold/flu season arriving, but everyone’s entitled at looking at pumpkin spiced lattes however they like, half-empty or half-full.

Another inescapable aspect of October, besides pumpkin-flavored EVERYTHING, is the holiday of Halloween. I love Halloween, not as much as other holidays like Christmas or Thanksgiving, but I do in fact love it. It’s the holiday that celebrates fun and mischief for some, and for others it’s the chance to feel accepted in society while wearing black clothes and vampy-red lip products (guess which one I am? Wrong: it’s both).

This year a few friends and I had the chance to visit Salem for a weekend, a place I had personally never been to but was ecstatic about visiting. Having not visited Massachusetts in nearly four years, and in desperate need of some road-tripping, we set out one Friday morning with the intention of spending an entire day in Salem and have a witchin’ good time (don’t judge me). What I didn’t expect, though, was to learn as much as I did about the town of Salem and the grief and heartache that has plagued the city since the late 1600s.

The Hocus Pocus house (aka the house of the Dennison siblings), in all its glory.

Our first few hours trolling around the area were great. We went and did the tourist thing and took pictures of the Hocus Pocus house, only 10 minutes away from the historical part of the town, an experience that’s forever quenched my Halloween nostalgia.

Afterward we headed back toward the touristy area with the shops and a street fair that was going on that weekend. Our timing was both great and terrible; while the street fair was excellent for a weekend trip with lots of booths and things to see, when we decided to go look at the more historical sights, namely the Salem Witch Memorial and the Burying Point (the oldest burying ground in the city of Salem) the atmosphere was not what I was expecting.

When it comes to places like Salem, there’s bound to be a hefty amount of people who only remember or know this place based on its muddied history with the Witch Trials. There are also bound to be even more people who only know this town because of its association with the term “witches.” I’m not gonna lie, part of the reason I love Halloween (and why I was so excited to visit Salem) was because of the fun characterization of witches. However, in a town where part of the

Sign on the outside wall of The Burying Point.

tourism is based on a memorial where 20 people were wrongfully persecuted and killed because of mass hysteria, not everything is about fun and games.

When we finally got to Charter Street where the memorial and cemetery were located, an astounding sight lay before me. Throngs of people were flooding through the cemetery, snapping photos and posing with the gravestones of the dead. Then, as we passed by onto the memorial itself, even more people were filtering through from the side street and the cemetery which sat right behind the memorial, taking selfies with the stone benches in the memorial, each one engraved with the name of a person who was hanged or pressed to death (poor Giles Corey).

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In all honesty, most of my knowledge of what occurred during the Witch Trials is based off The Crucible, which I know is dramatized and partially fictionalized. Still, knowing what little I do about the Trials, I know enough to realize that a memorial is just that: a memorial. It’s something to honor those who have passed away. I’m in no way saying that people shouldn’t have been taking pictures in these locations; however you wish to remember something historic like that is up to you. I took pictures as well to document my trip. But what I didn’t do, or any of my traveling companions, was run around the cemetery taking funny-faced selfies with headstones, or with the names of people who were killed.

One of the victims of the Witch Trials, Susannah Martin. The note on the ribbon says “Remembered by your eighth great granddaughter.”

Memorials are popular places to visit when going on a vacation to a notable city or state. The Washington Memorial, though it’s a simple statue, represents a great man with an honorable legacy. Memorials like that are meant to be marveled and posed with, but then there are some, dedicated to the sacrifices and deaths of those who are honored, who deserve the appropriate kind of remembrance. You wouldn’t taking goofy selfies with heavy filters with Auschwitz in the background, so why would you sit on top of a stone bench (in essence a headstone) for a wrongfully prosecuted witch trial victim? Salem hasn’t had an easy time moving past the events of the Witch Trials; some of the victims weren’t even fully exonerated until 2001. Why is it so hard to honor those in the afterlife properly, when it was the likes of bad, misguided people who put them in the ground in the first place?

Later on that day, the three of us went on a Salem Night Tour, one of the programs hosted during the year and very popular in October. Our tour guide, Aaron, who, by the way, did an amazing job, took us around to some of the sights, some popular places we had seen earlier but also many other places that either had a lot of history behind them or were places known for ghost sightings (also related to either their death or the history of their death). Aaron had grown up in Salem and just from his demeanor took his job quite seriously. Even though we heard the occasional “it’s all lies!” or “ghosts aren’t real,” none of us really cared to listen to the haters. The stories we were hearing about what life was like in Salem all those years ago, and how the lives of people were taken away by the greed that overcame those with power back in the day were interesting, albeit depressing. But depressing or not, they were real and part of this town’s history, as with many other cities or states with infamy attached to their names.

So while I did go to Salem with the intention to have fun and explore the town, (unsurprisingly) I learned a lot as well. Though many might rehash their trip to Salem as a fun endeavor to go see “where they did the witch hunts,” I’ll never see it that way. I won’t look back in my photos or memories and think of Salem as a place that’s fun to visit in October because of the fall and witches. I’ll think of a town that has a bloody history but chooses to try and move forward, which might be hard to believe when quite a few shops there are mostly based on witch-themed souvenirs. I’ll see it for more than just a tourism hotspot. I’ll see it for a town with a rich history that deserves to be discovered, and a past that deserves to be respected.

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