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Springfield's Hidden Emerald Heart

In the downtown of the City of Homes there is a pastoral oasis where both the living and dead may find eternal peace.

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Thursday, June 28, 2012
Photo By Mark Roessler
One of the many beautiful memorials that can be found in the Springfield Cemetery

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"Funerals never start on time here," said James Mooney, general manager of the Springfield Cemetery, Crematory and Columbarium. "People always have a hard time finding the place."

Though the nearly 40-acre cemetery is only a few blocks from the city's downtown and near such attractions as the Armory and the MassMutual Center, many residents and longtime Valley dwellers have no clue that one of the oldest and most beautiful cemeteries in New England thrives in Springfield's downtown.

A "thriving" cemetery may seem like an oxymoron, but as one steps into the lush, manicured space, strange and beautiful contradictions abound.

The cemetery was first established in 1841; there are arguably few institutions in America that have lasted so long or prospered so well—even if this one's main line of work is honoring the dead. Wedged between two imposing brick apartment buildings, the modest gates of the main entrance stand at the intersection of Central and Maple Streets. Beyond, a long, narrow, tree-lined lane leads to a wide swath of rolling green fields. According to Mooney, the lane—more than twice as long as a football field—and a long-since-demolished arch in its center were intended to act as a sort of barrier between the "city of the living" and the "city of the dead."

These days, in the face of economic hardships, a tornado and a freak snowstorm last October, one could be forgiven for not being certain which city is which. After a rigorous spring cleaning, Mooney and his work crews were able to largely erase all signs of these natural disasters from the cemetery by Memorial Day, while many patches of Springfield still show signs of the brutal events.

"When the tornado hit last year," Mooney explained as we explored the cemetery in his SUV, "it basically came up the hill from downtown, went along the lane, and then headed south, going up the hill." Thus it bypassed much of the graveyard and instead did its worst to the Ames Hill-Crescent Hill Historic District and the neighborhoods beyond.

Still, though the cemetery avoided a direct hit from the tornado, the storm felled several of its huge, ancient trees. The snowstorm that followed months later added to the chaos, with fallen limbs taking down several headstones and grave markers.

"We had one fallen tree trunk that was so large, when the tractor tried to pull it out, the chain snapped, whipped around and smashed the tractor's window," Mooney said. "We had to drag all the trees and limbs out to the road so they could be grinded down. It took four truckloads of woodchips before we got all the debris out of here."

Mooney credits the dedication and professionalism of his full- and part-time maintenance crews for the cemetery's quick recovery and on-going splendor.

"Up-keep is constant and year round," he said. "If we stop, we'll never catch up again."

The board that oversees the nonprofit cemetery, he adds, has always been willing to spend what is needed to sustain its appearance. On average, it spends about $14,000 a year just maintaining the trees. Last year, it completed a $90,000 renovation of the 1885 chapel and attached 1910 crematorium.

"Sometimes when people are considering buying a grave or a lot here," Mooney said, "there's a little sticker shock when they find out the price." A single grave for an adult costs $925, plus a $900 interment fee. "But I try to remind them that this is a one-time cost for services that last in perpetuity. We have grave sites we've been maintaining here for over a century, with no plans to stop."

With a smile, he added that it's hard to find a deal like that anywhere else.

*

The original location of Springfield's first cemetery was down by the Connecticut River at the end of the present-day Elm Street. In a history of the current cemetery written by Dr. Donald J. D'Amato in 1991 to commemorate its 150th anniversary, the author described the conditions that led to the relocation further up the hill.

The original burying ground, "perhaps first used in 1639, was by the early 19th century noted for its tall grass, night straying cows and scrub pines," D'Amato wrote. "Many stone monuments (earlier ones of wood had long since rotted) had tilted or fallen. Some graves were sunken and some, with caskets buried near the surface, endangered the health of the living. The wakes of Connecticut River steamboats eroded the river bank, causing tombstones and coffins to fall into the water; some are still there. Apart from all of this, a local grave robber, one Dr. Loring, exhumed newly buried bodies, illegally, for sale to a medical college in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Some families interred their dead secretly, or provided nightly security for several days or used private family burial sites on their own property."

Under the leadership of Unitarian minister William B. O. Peabody, a search began for a site for a new private cemetery away from the riverfront and the hubbub of downtown. As a naturalist and author of books about local bird life, Peabody was familiar with a place known as Martha's Dingle, a set of hills and ravines that offered a sort of natural bird sanctuary. (The site was named after one-time owner Martha Ferre, who, as the city's ugliest woman—according to folklore—had sold the land to a local businessman in order to raise herself a dowry.) Peabody walked in the dingle often and composed many of his sermons there; on May 28, 1841 a newly formed cemetery association voted to buy 20 acres of the land for $3,070.

As president of the association, Reverend Peabody designed the layout of the cemetery, planted many of the trees and named the streets that border the site—Maple, Mulberry, Cedar and Pine. He consecrated the ground on September 5, 1841 before a crowd of nearly 5,000 people. As D'Amato explains in his commemorative history, legend has it that not all were happy with the site's new designation.

"[T]he dingle's frog population, in angry reaction to [Peabody's] presentation," he wrote, "migrated one night to [a] new location, Goose Pond on Armory Hill, present day Mason Square. The first interment was made the next day, a child of a Mr. and Mrs. Dwight."

In 1847, work began on locating and moving the remains and markers from the old burial ground by the river up to the dingle. Ultimately, the remains of 2,404 bodies and 517 tombstones were relocated to a space along Pine Street; bodies without headstones were put in two common graves with markers. These brown, weathered gravestones, adorned with angel wings and faded names written in a spidery script, remain there today.

*

Unlike many more modern cemeteries, the one James Mooney oversees is not a flat, broad plain with markers organized in some regimented plan with different sections for people of different faiths and social standings.

Following a design trend that began with the Auburn Cemetery in Boston, the lanes in the Springfield Cemetery meander through old patches of forest, along manicured terraces with views of the city beyond, and into secluded hollows where only the birds can be heard.

While pointing out some of the more famous gravesites of the city's politicians and business leaders, Mooney explained to me with a note of pride that never in its history has the cemetery refused an interment or segregated a burial site based on the deceased's race, religion, class or any other criteria. While the hillside near the crematorium is reserved for the military (more than 200 Civil War veterans are buried there), the cemetery is non-denominational and the numbering of the lots is purposely not consecutive in order to promote an even distribution throughout the grounds. Though tens of thousands of people have been laid to rest there, spaces for future burials are available throughout the cemetery.

"We're all about offering people options that fit their needs and budgets," Mooney said.

For those not interested in being buried or entombed, the Springfield Cemetery has a crematorium, a garden where ashes can be scattered, and a Gothic columbarium where the urns containing the "cremains" can be stored in a marble vault with a memorial marker.

The crematorium was the first built in New England. It's attached to a charming Victorian chapel made from East Longmeadow sandstone and Milford pink granite and featuring ornate stained glass windows. The four ovens serve funeral homes throughout the region.

Mooney started his career at the cemetery 23 years ago, working in the crematorium, and is happy to show off the facility, explaining that crematoria are designed to reach temperatures of nearly 2,000 degrees and have a filtration system that prevents smoke or odors from affecting the rest of the cemetery.

As we stand in the chapel admiring the woodwork and colorful light streaming through the windows, something in Mooney's explanation of the crematorium's history and features clicks for me. Several years ago, only months after having moved to the area to live closer to my family, my mother died.

"Is this where she would have been cremated?" I asked, and when I told him when and where she passed, he nodded.

"More than likely," Mooney said.

And rather than being spooked or upset by this unexpected revelation, such is the beauty and grace of Springfield's hidden cemetery that I found myself glad. Though, like me, she had no idea this place existed, as a fellow historian and lover of fine parks and cemeteries, I know my mother would have approved of it.

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