Ben Franklin’s Grave, Christ Church Burial Ground, Philadelphia

Posted on
Nov 21, 2013

The other day I was jogging.

Through a cemetery.

It was awful. The jogging, I mean. The cemetery was lovely.

I find them kind of peaceful. I suppose my mom instilled that in me, which is weird, because she’s reared me to be terrified of so many other things (like thong underwear and undercooked chicken).

But not cemeteries. In mom’s words, what on earth could harm you in a cemetery?

That sentiment clearly stuck, because I’ve found that I’ve frequented a lot of them. In Oregon. In Kansas. And most recently, in Philadelphia.

I was in town during the government furlough, which meant that nearly everything of historical note was closed. The graveyard where Benjamin Franklin was buried was, however, open.

He’s interred at Christ Church Burial Ground, in downtown Philly (though when the cemetery was founded, in 1719, the spot was considered to be on the outskirts of town). Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell Center, and the Benjamin Franklin Museum were all nearby, their doors shuttered as part of the government shutdown.

But Benjamin Franklin’s grave was something I could see. Indeed, anyone can see it. It sits on the northwest corner of the lot, bordering the sidewalk, so you don’t even need to pay the paltry admission ($2) to get a look at it.

I did, though. I mean, it was $2. And besides, what else was I going to do? I was saving a fortune on this trip because everything else was shut.

I headed straight for Franklin’s tomb. It was covered in pennies.

Tossing coins on the headstone is said to be good luck – as well as an homage to the famous Philadelphian, and his “penny saved is a penny earned” maxim (to ironic effect).

Or so I learned from the teacher who was addressing his class just on the other side of the fence. What his students have saved on admission they were now gleefully chucking onto the grave.

One of them missed – their penny bounced off the marble and landed in the dirt. He asked me to grab it and place it on the tombstone. I obliged. His classmates thought all of it was hysterical. Their noise and laughter filled the chilly air; they sounded like a flock of geese.

When they left, I had the place mostly to myself, except for a pair of tourists with British accents. They asked me why everyone was throwing pennies. I told them what I’d learned, pretending that the information was more than 2 minutes old to me.

I think they left with the impression that I was a very courteous and knowledgeable woman, and I was content with that, inaccurate as it may be.

The money collect from Franklin’s grave (which amounts to hundreds of dollars every year) is used for upkeep of the cemetery.

There are a lot of rumors going around (can it be a rumor if someone has been dead for two hundred or so years?) that Franklin was a bit of a playboy. There’s no corroborating evidence of this, save for the fact that he had an illegitimate son (who went on to be royal governor of New Jersey. I am unclear on how this is different from being the regular governor of New Jersey, but it sounds impressive).

Still, regardless of whether or not he was able to seal the deal with any semblance of regularity, it sounds like Franklin appreciated the company of women, and I find that comforting. Life can’t be all about signing Constitutions and drafting Declarations of Independence, and establishing Philadelphia’s first fire department, and inventing the bifocal (on a personal note, thanks), and writing almanacs. You need other things, like passion and corsets. When he wasn’t experimenting with electricity, he gave his life balance by experimenting with electricity, if you know what I mean. Wink-wink.

And what a long life it was. Fraklin died at 84. His wife, Deborah, had passed away 16 years earlier. They are buried side-by-side at Christ Church.

They are not the only historical individuals of note interred at the cemetery. Christ Church is the final resting place of four other signers of the Declaration of Independence – George Ross, Francis Hopkinson, Joseph Hughes, and Dr. Benjamin Rush.

Of those four, Rush was perhaps the most well-known. Credited as “The Father of American Psychiatry”, he was a renowned and popular physician, and his views on mental illness were incredibly progressive for the time (his views on the education of women were decidedly more complicated. He was vocal that girls needed more than simply rudimentary schooling, but still felt that women were the inferior sex, and were unfit to receive the same education as men). He also helped to found the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, of which the Mutter Museum is now part.

There are other graves of note – you can find an expanded list here.

I found them all to be fascinating – looking into the past via chiseled stone.

When apparently all you were told about a woman was who her husband was.

Honestly, though, whether you go just to see Franklin’s grave, or whether you take the time to wander throughout it, Christ Church Burial Ground is just a nice, pleasant place to go for a walk.

At least, I think so. But then again, I like cemeteries.

Leave a Comment

  • Mark Davidson

    What? You’ve never read Ben Franklin’s “Advice on choosing a Mistress?”

    He says that an older women is better, because, amongst other reasons, “regarding only what is below the girdle, it is impossible of two women to know an old from a young one.” Also, all cats are gray in the dark. And you don’t have to worry about her getting pregnant. Anyway why not make an old woman happy, instead of making a young one miserable?

    • Mark Davidson

      … typo there, sorry.

  • Jen

    I also like walking in cemeteries, and we have a nice historic one near my work which doubles as a park. I find them interesting for many of the same reasons. I find them life-affirming and balancing, and like to imagine what life was like for the people the stones represent. We all end up in the same place in the end, and we better enjoy life while we can.

  • Rosa

    So cool! I love cemeteries, too..I try and get to them when I travel, esp when I knew there’s someone famous there. One of my ancestors is buried just diagonally from Franklin’s grave so I went to visit them both recently. I love the one in downtown Princeton, too: declaration signers, ex president, and it’s just lovely. Thanks for the post.

  • Emily

    Have you been to New Orleans? The cemeteries are wonderful here!

  • Kate L.

    Hey – undercooked chicken can be hazardous to your health! So credit to your mom (note that I’m leaving alone any discussion of thong underwear …).

    I visited Philly on a school field trip some … well, shall we pretend that it was not *too* long ago? I don’t believe that the cemetery was on our one-day itinerary, though, so many thanks for the interesting update.

    As an attempted form of payback, let me say that friends of mine who got to vacation in London earlier this year spent time walking through Highgate Cemetery there, so you might enjoy that if/when you & Rand head back that way. (I’m working my way through your archives – laughing my way, really – so I apologize if you’ve posted about it but I haven’t gotten to that story yet.)

    Oh, and have you considered adding “Cemeteries” as their own category?

  • Kristina Cline

    wink, wink, nudge, nudge “say no more!”

  • Bonnie

    I think cemeteries are extremely interesting, too. I worked in one for a while. I had to stand at each headstone (and footstone) and take a GPS reading with a unit, while putting all the information on the headstone into the unit. I spent most of the time figuring out how all the deceased were related (husband, wife, second wife, etc) and how old they were when they got married. I found that quite fascinating. Especially when the wife was, say 14, at the time….I also spent time trying to imagine my town, as they had lived in it.

    A man who lived next to the cemetery came over to me one day and asked if I was taking paranormal readings with my “gadget.” Sadly, I told him I was not. 🙂 I was more worried about the bees, wasps, snakes, and ankle-breaking gopher holes.

  • Mark

    I enjoy cemeteries also and I too find them to be quite peaceful. One of my all time favorites is Arlington National Cemetery. I find to to be a very peaceful and reverent place and I love to visit some of my heroes who are laid to rest there.

  • Delly

    Royal governor – his son was appointed by Britain when New Jersey was still a colony, so he was a royal governor. If I remember correctly, he stayed loyal to Britain during the revolution and eventually moved to London after (during?) the revolution, dying there.

  • I wrote my first school report about Benjamin Franklin when I was in 4th grade. My father took me all over Philadelphia to all manner of Franklin related places, including his grave. He was truly a Renaissance man and, yes, a bit of a raconteur. He was away from his wife for years when he served as as ambassador to France and Great Britain—-not that that’s a good excuse for philandering. (Hmm. Both Philadelphia and philandering have the same root. Wassup with that?)

  • Mark

    We also often visit cemeteries when travelling. Some of those stones are really worn.
    Bonnie, love the story about your gadget. 🙂

  • Ada

    This place seems really peaceful and lovely. I also love cemeteries. They’re especially beautiful in the fall, don’t you think? If you ever come to Hungary, you should visit the cemetery on the Fiumei road. It’s really big, and the old parts are overgrown. There are many sculptures and interesting tombs. If you’d like to see some pictures of it, you could see my pics here:

  • Next time you are in Paris, check out the tombstone of Monsieur and Madame Pigeon. They were real folks, buried in the Montparnasse cemetary and their marker is fabulous.

  • Actually Ben was a ladies man whit the women in the French Court. The reason for this was two fold. One he liked the ladies, so basically just another guy who wants some. But second a lot of the upper crust ladies supported America in its fight for independence. So they sought him out to not only offer themselves, but what ever help they could also give, financially, politically. whatever.

    I am sure Ben would have loved thongs, unfortunately for him he was a few hundreds years too early, although I am sure he enjoyed unwrapping the gifts of his day, if you know what I mean.

    But as for the grave yards, there is nothing like walking through the really old ones checking out the names and whatever inscription there might be. It is easy to get carried away in the history of it. I live in a small town called Dracut in MA. that was established over 300 years ago, so we have some really old grave yards, at least for America.

  • kind of like the trinity church cemetery in NYC but a bit more eery.

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