Woodlawn Cemetery Prepares Historic Grounds

The newly-restored sculpture at the gate of Woodlawn Cemetery features four ornate angels with brass horns, using the reference to the Book of Revelation in the Christian Bible whereby the four angels call back the dead to God.

It is a stark symbolism in any time for humanity, especially at a cemetery, but it is incredibly poignant now as the cemetery has seen a surge of burials related to COVID-19 illnesses and at the same time scurries to prepare its remarkably historic grounds for the crowds that usually come on the Memorial Day holiday weekend.

Visitors will be greeted by a newly restored sculpture at the gate of the cemetery this year. The brass horns have not been in place for more than 50 years.

“We’re probably averaging triple the interments we would normally have since the COVID-19 started,” said Woodlawn CEO Francis Larovere III, who came on as director about three years ago. “We’re fortunate to have a seasoned crew and they’ve kept up with the burials. We’re probably deferred a little maintenance the plantings we normally do because we’re putting all the crews on the interment demand. That’s been the only thing we’ve given up. Our winter was pretty mild, and so far so good…We have 5,000 flower beds here and we usually start before Memorial Day. We’ve got deliveries in the greenhouse, but there isn’t time to devote to planting everything. We’ll probably start that next week.”

Larovere, Director of Operations Bill Monahan and Foreman Alan Giangregorio have been preparing for visitors to come to the cemetery over the Memorial Day holiday, and just how that might work is – like all things – a little new this year.

This year, the cemetery will be ready on Friday, Saturday and Sunday for Memorial Day crowds, and expect to be open until 6 p.m. Since COVID-19 restrictions set in on March 24, they’ve only kept the gates open until 4 p.m.

There will be double security on the grounds to make sure everyone is social distancing, Monahan said. He also said that will be particularly important in the mausoleums where they will limit the numbers of people that can go inside at one time.

He said they believe numbers will be lighter than normal, based on Mother’s Day crowds earlier this month. But he also said there is more of an opportunity to spread visits out this year as so many are not working, or are working from home, on Thursday and Friday.

“We experienced this with Mother’s Day,” said Monahan. “We had traffic Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It’s probably more spread out. We didn’t have as many visitors here on Mother’s Day as in past years. You can always tell by the numbers of flowers left on the gravestones…We’ll probably see the same thing on Memorial Day weekend.”

So many in the area get used to visiting or seeing loved ones interred in Woodlawn Cemetery that it can almost become typical. However, the cemetery is anything but typical, and is one of the most historic in the nation.

“It is one of the three premier garden cemeteries in Greater Boston, with Mt. Auburn and Forest Hills,” said Larovere. “The first directors were all the prominent Everett families like the Fullers, the Parlins and the Sweetsers. All those families came together to start this in 1850 and it is very historic. In fact, the family that started Converse rubber here donated the money for our chapel, which is a beautiful signature building. They were also on the Board of Directors. The cemetery has had that kind of leadership for generations.”

Meanwhile, Foreman Giangregorio has some history to celebrate as well.

After graduating Boston College, he took a summer job at Woodlawn. That morphed into a career on the historic grounds that will mark a 50-year milestone this Friday.

Giangregorio is seen as the resident historian of the cemetery, and has quite a bit to share in regards to those buried there, the amazing horticulture and the history of the place.

This year, he said he is particularly proud of the restored entry gate, where a family in 1904 had funded the sculpture of the four angels – a relief sculpture that symbolized the Christian tradition of death and also featured the likenesses of the family’s children. That relief sculpture was a fantastic piece of art featured at the entrance but it had fallen into disrepair long ago and hadn’t been fixed in 50 years.

“The four angels symbolize the Book of Revelation where they are calling the dead back to God from the four corners of the Earth,” he said.

After many fruitless calls, Larovere was able to find someone that would come and repair the sculpture, and they were also able to use one of the damaged brass horns as an example for fabricators to make four new ones – which Giangregorio pointed to proudly and which are now in place.

He said there are a number of great people buried in Woodlawn, and it’s history often escapes those that visit.

“There are six Medal of Honor winners in here and probably a seventh,” he said. “We have a general that fought in Tippecanoe with William Henry Harrison. We have friends of Edgar Allen Poe and friends of Mark Twain. We even have the first woman to have circumnavigated the globe – Mary Ann Patton. She went around the Cape of Good Hope and stopped in San Francisco. There are urban legends, such as us having witches buried here also.”

There is also the story of the first burial, which actually happened before the cemetery opened.

The cemetery actually opened on a Sunday in 1851, but there was a man who had died of typhoid fever just prior at the Charlestown Naval Hospital. People were so scared of typhoid in those days, that they brought him to Woodlawn one day before opening and buried him away from everyone else.

“By the time the cemetery opened, they already had one person buried the day before,” said Giangregorio. “On his tombstone, it reads ‘First Tenant of Woodlawn.’”

Then there are some more sad pieces of history, like a plethora of unmarked graves from the 1918-1920 era that Monahan points out.

“There are about 150 to 200 and we assume they were from the Spanish Flu,” he said. “They are all in unmarked graves. We know who is in there, but they aren’t marked.”

Giangregorio said there used to be iron fences around every plot at Woodlawn, and it was like having one’s own little yard. However, during World War II, the government came in and stripped away all the fences for the war effort – eliminating one of the key elements in the ‘garden’ cemetery aspect.

They also have veterans from every war starting at the Civil War and going up through the Gulf War.

“You can just walk through the old parts and the history is everywhere,” said Giangregorio.

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