SALEM — Visitors to Charter Street Burial Ground will be prohibited from entering the historic graveyard this Halloween season.
The city's Cemetery Commission voted Tuesday night to bar members of the public — including tour groups — from entering the cemetery between Saturday, Sept. 28, and Sunday, Nov. 3.
Charter Street Burial Ground, also known as the Burying Point, is a historic cemetery cornered by Charter and Liberty streets downtown. It has been a frequent talking point around Salem as the Halloween season has grown in popularity, bringing hundreds of thousands of revelers here each year and gradually causing irreversible wear on the historic site.
City leaders have been preparing a $600,000 preservation project for the cemetery that would build clearly visible walking paths, add lighting and more. The project was initially supposed to begin this fall, but it has since been delayed.
Still, officials proposed the idea of closing the cemetery to ensure guests don't cause more damage to the centuries-old gravestones and tombs before restoration could begin.
The cemetery, established in 1637, is among the oldest in the country. It is the burial place for several historic figures, including many connected to the Witch Trials — making it a major tourist attraction. Individual tourists, as well as walking tours, are a constant sight in the cemetery throughout the year.
The potential closure has been a divisive issue. Some have called for the need to keep families from picnicking on the tombs. Others have said closing the cemetery prevents the solemn contemplation and respect that many travel to Salem for.
Now, some middle ground has emerged: shut it down, and use the time to discuss how to handle the cemetery in the future.
"This is important for preserving the historic resource," said Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem, "and I look at the closure in October as an opportunity for us to work with the historic community and tour community in Salem, and the city, to determine the best way to provide access and interpretation of the Charter Street cemetery going forward."
City officials announced the commission vote Wednesday afternoon. The city plans to post "information about the cemetery and its history, as well as images of notable headstones and tombs" online at www.preservingsalem.com.
For folks like Rory "Raven" O'Brien, who runs his own tours under the branding Salem On Foot, the closed gates of the cemetery will only keep the honest tourists out.
"I tend to feel the people causing problems aren't going to be kept out," O'Brien said. "If you're determined to get a spooky selfie lying on someone's crypt, you're just going to jump the wall to do it."
Still, O'Brien acknowledges that the problems caused by the tourism season need to be addressed.
"I absolutely agree that the cemetery gets overrun with people who aren't respectful, but I feel that closing it off isn't the best way to handle it," he said. "That seems to me to be the laziest choice."
Some have also called attention to state law that require any cemeteries "exempted from taxation" to be accessible during daylight hours. That's covered under section 42A of Mass. General Law chapter 114.
But Fox said officials can get around that because the preservation project will immediately follow the Halloween season.
"It's Massachusetts state law that cemeteries are supposed to be open to the public," Fox said. "This is an extraordinary circumstance that is leading to the closure. Closing it just protects the cemetery until the work is done, and I think once the paths are delineated and the lighting is installed, it'll be more clear how to use the cemetery."