SHARON — In 1948, the year Israel was founded, a small group of Boston-area residents decided it was time to create a spacious modern cemetery to serve the region’s Jewish population.
Sharon Memorial Park, the product of that vision, grew to become the largest Jewish cemetery in New England, and helped pioneer such industry trends as allowing burial plans to be made in advance of death.
Now, in a milestone moment for the 65-year-old cemetery on Dedham Street, Sharon Memorial has embarked this summer on a modernization project that promises to reinforce its reputation as an innovator.
It is constructing a 7,000-square-foot administration building to replace the original, which will be demolished. A distinctive feature of the new facility will be a 100-seat chapel, providing families the opportunity to hold indoor funeral services on the property.
Sharon Memorial is already the only Jewish cemetery in New England to offer a regularly open, fully staffed administrative office, and will now be the sole one to have a chapel, according to company officials.
“This is an exciting and very meaningful time for us,” said Fred Lappin, president of Sharon Memorial Park, and president and CEO of Knollwood Cemetery Corp., the not-for-profit organization that owns the Sharon cemetery and the adjacent nondenominational Knollwood Memorial Park.
Lappin said the project, set for completion early next year, represents “the next generation of the cemetery” at a time when the original vision of the founders is being celebrated but also updated.
The modernizing intent is evident in the design of the new building, the glass exterior of which will provide visitors and staff direct exposure to natural light and the cemetery’s scenic landscape of wide open lawns and myriad trees and flower plantings.
Lappin said the addition of the chapel is also a significant advance for the park. As an alternative to holding a funeral service at another site followed by a burial service at the cemetery, families can have both the funeral and the graveside services at Sharon Memorial.
“In surveying our customers over a number of years, this was very clearly something they indicated they would like to have as an option,” Lappin said.
Louis Grossman, chairman of the board of Knollwood Cemetery Corp. and a grandson of one of the founders, said the project “is in some ways a recognition of our forefathers who started this park.
“The third generation is taking over now and the vision and vitality of the memorial park is coming to fruition,” he said. “We are both physically and spiritually redeveloping the administration building . . . to serve not only our lot owners but our staff.”
Sharon Memorial and Knollwood Memorial encompass 320 acres that the state designated for cemetery use in 1898. A small section of the land was used as a cemetery starting about that time, but at some point ceased to operate due to a lack of demand. When they purchased the land in 1948, the founders created Sharon Memorial Park and separately created Knollwood Memorial Park on land in Sharon and Canton that included the existing plots.
About 170 of the 320 acres have been developed as cemetery property, with 110 acres used for Sharon Memorial and the balance for Knollwood, leaving nearly half of the parcel still available.
Sharon Memorial is New England’s largest Jewish cemetery based on its developed acreage and its 750 to 800 annual burials, said Lappin, who is also president elect of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association, an industry group based outside of Washington, D.C.
An historical account of the park on its website says it was no coincidence that the cemetery was established the same year as the state of Israel, noting that the post-World War II Jewish community was then “coming into its own” and that Jews worldwide were feeling more secure and empowered.
“One way for the Jewish community to show that it was a part of modern America was to create a modern, garden-style park with uniform bronze markers lying flat on landscaped plots as an alternative to traditional cemeteries with stone monuments,” the website account says.
Sharon was at that time more rural, but newspaper ads in 1959 promoted the cemetery as being just 9 miles from Mattapan Square, then a growing center of Jewish life, according to the historical account. It says 28 Boston-area synagogues found the location appealing enough to reserve sections of the memorial park for their members, an arrangement that is no longer in effect.
A key force behind the success of the park in its first decades was Eric Marmorek, who served as executive vice president from 1949 to 1967.
It was under Marmorek that Sharon Memorial in the 1950s became one of the first cemeteries in the country to offer “pre-need planning.”
The cemetery has earned other distinctions, including being one of the first in the country to guarantee families perpetual care of grave sites by setting aside a portion of each purchase price for a maintenance trust fund.
Steven Meyer, a member of the corporation’s board, said this summer’s project is “an attempt to maintain the premises and keep them at the leading edge.”
Referring to the founders, he said: “They had a vision and it was a clear one. They believed that this was a need, and it’s been proven.”
“Typically, when people think of cemeteries, quite naturally they think of dead people. The reality is that cemeteries are for the living, an important component of any community and its history,” Lappin said. “Sharon Memorial Park is honored to be a leader in that position for the Jewish community of Greater Boston.”