Westminster's origins stretch back to 1786 when local Scots-Irish Presbyterians acquired land here for a new burial ground, a mile or so from the center of the growing town of some 12,000. First Presbyterian Church included many of Baltimore's most affluent and influential business, military, political and cultural leaders.
Westminster's gravestones read like a who's who of early Baltimore. And the survival of this 18th-century burying ground provides us with a direct and intimate encounter with America's changing attitudes toward death.
Edge of Town First Presbyterian Church's new buring ground was located away from the wharves, counting houses and fashionable homes of Baltimore's bustling waterfront.
Warner & Hanna's Plan of the City & Environs of Balimore ... 1801.
The Maryland Historical Society
Looking at Westminster
Gravestones & Vaults Westminster's gravestones, nearly all of local marble, are typical, albeit conservative, examples of their period. They include decorated tables and slabs (raised above the ground) and a handful of obelisks and sarcophagi. The three dozen granite vaults, on the other hand, are extraordinary.
Three Periods of Change
Westminster's first burial took place in 1788 and its last in 1943. That 155-year period can be divided into three periods, according to work done by local professor Stephen Vicchio.
Early Years, 1788-1800
Gravestones with scalloped and square tops are straightforward expressions of the austerity and simplicity so highly values by 18th century Presbyterians (Calvinist). Look for examples with long prose epitaphs.
Golden Age, 1800-1840
Elaborate burial vaults reflect the worldly success of church members and their embrace of public displays of wealth. The stylish Greene Street carriage gates signal taste and sophistication. The gates and a handful of vaults were designed by noted architects. Look for short poetic epitaphs describing someone's spiritual qualities - one of Samuel T. Coleridge's poems was a local favorite.
Late Period, 1840s-1940s
Monumental displays disappears as the wealthiest church members begin buring their dead in new "rural" cemeteries like Greenmount and Loudon Park. Many familes move their members' remains to Greenmount. Look for plain ground slabs and raised tablets.
A Simple Plan The original burying ground plan contained 180 lots, each measuring 16 ½ by 8 feet. The original entrance, located on the south side near the Sam Smith vault, opened onto a 10-foot avenue that bisected the graveyard. Five smaller paths (42-inch alleys) also ran north-south, providing access to family lots. A second 10-foot avenue ran east-west. The Greene Street carriage gates were added in 1815.
Plan of the Grave Yard from John C. Backus' Discourse delivered at the Opening of the Westminster Presbyterian Church... (1852)
First & Franklin Street Presbyterian Church Archives
Out-of-Fashion The opening of Greenmount Cemetery in 1839 rendered Westminster crowded and undignified. A pleasure ground for the living, Greenmount brought the rural cememtery movement to Baltimore.
Green Mount Cemetery, tinted lithograph by August Kollner, 1848
Courtest of Enoch Pratt Free Library / State Library Resource Center, Baltimore, Maryland
Scots-Irish Elite Prominent merchants like Robert Gilmor, whose family vault is here, controlled the political, economic, and civil affairs of early Baltimore. This portrait includes of the the earliest view of the harbor and Federal Hill, and shows Gilmor seated in his comfortable Water Street home - where he can keep an eye on his nearby business interests.
Portrait of Robert Gilmor by Charles Wilson Peale, Baltimore, 1788, oil on Canvas, 1967-365,A. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Bequest of Mary Mercer Carter Stewart Vivian.
Some Useful Terms
Vault - Burial chamber, usuallly underground; a repository for the dead
Mausoleum - Large tomb built above ground
Tomb - Structure in which a corpse is buried, built above or below the ground
Sarcophagus - Carved Stone container for a body from the Greek words meaning "eater of flesh"
Crypt - Vault with domed or arched ceiling; typically underground or partially so
Catacombs - Underground network of corridors and rooms used as burial places, usually associated with early Christians in Rome
Coffin - Wedge or octagonal shaped container, generally made by local carpenters or cabinet makers, in common use into the 1860s
Casket - Rectangular-shaped burial container, originally meaning "a precious receptacle for jewels," popular after the Civil War
[photograph]Descendents John Stewart Morton Jr., shown here in front of his family's 19th century vault, worked tirelessly on behalf of the Westminster Preservation Trust to locate descendants of those buried here.
Courtesy of John Stewart Morton Jr.