Town Cemetery is the place to go for star-gazing (Norman Mailer, Robert Motherwell, et alia). At St. Peter’s Cemetery, you can immerse yourself in the story of Portuguese Provincetown. But if it’s the classic New England death’s-head grave markers you’re seeking, you must visit the Winthrop Street Cemetery, the oldest existing burial ground in town. Here you’ll find an abundance of winged skulls, like the especially toothy fellow pictured here, symbolizing the ascent to heaven of the soul of Thomas Killburn, who died 4 August 1794, at 76 (meaning he had been born before the incorporation of Provincetown in 1727). His epitaph — borrowed somewhat from the tomb of Edward, the Black Prince: “Stop here my Friend and cast an eye / As you are now so once was i / As i am now so you must be / Prepare for Death and follow me.”
The founding date of the cemetery is given as 1723, based on the oldest known stone, which is inscribed — under a death’s head: “HERE LYES ye BODY OF Mrs. DESIER COWING ye WIFE OF Mr. JOHN COWING WHO DECd FEBry ye 8 1723/4 IN ye 40 YEAR OF HER AGE.” A descendant, Brian Cowing, lives across the road at 22 Brown Street. In 1962, Salvador R. Vasques III compiled an alphabetical record of inscriptions, which can be consulted on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website. There are some 600 burials, but many are difficult to find. Maintenance has been a problem for at least a half century, often dependent on volunteers to re-erect toppled stones and clear away underbrush from the hillocks. In recent years, Dr. Richard Keating, one of the first residents of Seashore Point, has been a leader in the effort to unearth and conserve graves and monuments.
More than 2,000 buildings and vessels are searchable on buildingprovincetown.com. The Building Provincetown book is available for purchase ($20) at Town Hall, Office of the Town Clerk, 260 Commercial Street, Provincetown 02657.