... a link to our past
In the 1700’s it was the custom to bury the dead in the churchyard. Beliefs about death included “flying into another world”. On many of the old stones are skulls with wings or arches symbolizing “the gateway to heaven”. Burial grounds were crowded, poorly maintained and barren, reinforcing the idea of death being a horrible state.
Two things happened at nearly the same time in history that brought us a cemetery such as Wyoming. Cities grew up around the churches and the burial grounds filled up. Graves had to be reused. In 1804 Napoleon Bonaparte saw a solution for the city of Paris – build a park outside the city and use it as a burial ground. But no one wanted to be buried out of town, so Napoleon had the remains of many famous people dug up and moved out to the park. Voila, it became a big hit! The city of Boston soon copied this model with Mount Auburn Cemetery.
In the year of 1828, the people of North Malden (read “Melrose”) bought an acre and a half of land and planned a village burying ground. When this became too small, a twenty-one acre tract was purchased in 1856 and it was dedicated as the Wyoming Cemetery. An adjoining farm of twenty-eight acres was acquired bringing the cemetery to about fifty acres. The land was generally modeled after Mount Auburn with plantings, stones and statuary placed. Embalming became popular so the bodies of Civil War soldiers could be shipped home. Many people had the remains of family members sent here, but no actual tombs were built.
The second event that influenced cemeteries of that time was the Great Awakening when ideas about man’s place in nature were popularized. Religion became less melancholy and more joyful with singing and music. Death was viewed in a more sentimental light. Pleasant sayings and carvings appeared on the stones.
When I was a child, the only cemetery I knew was in Everett. My father and grandparents were buried there. We visited on Sunday and brought marigolds. However, when I joined the Girl Scouts, I marched in the Memorial Day Parade. Destination: Wyoming Cemetery.
I do not remember the parade fondly. The end of May was likely to be hot, the route was long and the scout uniforms were not designed for a long, hot march. Heavy, serviceable cloth, long sleeves weighted down with merit badges and a woolen hat completed the green ensemble. Adding to the discomfort was our position in the parade – last. Not a scrap of music was heard, just the beat of the percussion section from a band far ahead. I once read of a scout troop who all carried transistor radios tuned into the same station to keep them in rhythm. We had no such technology.
When we reached the gates of Wyoming Cemetery, our bedraggled group was treated to the coolness of grass and trees. There were stones and monuments engraved with the names of those who were interred. The dates went way back in Melrose history. It was a strange but beautiful landscape as alien as the surface of the moon. We tried to pay attention to speeches honoring soldiers and sailors from many wars up through World War II. The firing of rifles was startling and the playing of “Taps” with its accompanying echo sounded very sad. Our parade reformed, left the cemetery for the walk down Main Street to Memorial Hall and Hoodsies. Hot and tired we walked home, convinced that we had done a good deed.
The first funeral I attended was that of my stepfather, Lester Grocott, in 1956. His heart had given out at the age of 56. In those days the visiting hours were held at home. The Crest Avenue house was filled with flowers and his casket was placed among them. People came and went – relatives, neighbors and friends of five children. Because it was my parents’ regular shopping night, a group from Cerratani’s Market brought bags of groceries. The funeral was held at First Baptist Church. I remember dozens of elderly men who came because Lester had been the youngest member of the Yankee Division in WWI. His gravesite was next to a knoll with lots of trees, a lovely spot to be laid to rest at Wyoming.
Eight years later our family assembled again at Wyoming Cemetery. In the meantime my mother had moved to New Hampshire, I had married and my brother John had purchased our Crest Avenue home. While at Plymouth State College taking a summer course, my sister Nancy had been involved in a terrible car crash and had not survived. My mother decided to buy a plot for herself and Nancy near the Lebanon Street gate under a newly planted tree. The funeral was held in Rochester and people either drove down with us or met us in Melrose. Fifteen years later Mom lost her battle with cancer and was the last of our family to be buried at Wyoming Cemetery.
However, our experience with Wyoming did not end. Every year I meet my brother and his wife at the Hilltop in Saugus. We park his car there and continue to Melrose in mine. We comment on how Ell Pond looks the same, how the hospital has grown, how narrow Main Street has become, how the parade route was quite long. We find the Grocott gravesite beside the knoll. Here we plant red geraniums for Lester, his first wife Gertrude and his brother Walter. We drive to the Lebanon Street wall to plant pink geraniums for Mom and Nancy. The tree is beginning to be shady. The cemetery has expanded over the years, but it has not changed. It is a place of peace, of quiet, of honor to those who rest there. It is good to renew our link to the past.
June 4, 2010