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Planting cemetery flags a fitting memorial to veterans

 Middle school students (from left) Harry Ford, 12, Ilyes Ouldseada, 11, Darian O’Brien, 12, Nevaeh Clough, 11, and Taliyah Garcia, 12, planted flags at Forest Dale Cemetery in Malden in time for Memorial Day.
Middle school students (from left) Harry Ford, 12, Ilyes Ouldseada, 11, Darian O’Brien, 12, Nevaeh Clough, 11, and Taliyah Garcia, 12, planted flags at Forest Dale Cemetery in Malden in time for Memorial Day.

A cemetery is a place of solemnity and unbreakable sadness. No one visits smiling. You walk around, read the headstones, reflect. It’s OK to weep tears for the deceased, the missed.

So you come, sometimes out of undying love, sometimes just to pay respects.

Most cemeteries around Greater Boston are meticulously maintained, like the sprawling lawns of people who live in towering mansions. Yet the respectful care of cemeteries is largely in the hands of regular people. And they take it seriously.

Especially around Memorial Day.

“We’ve got 10,000 flags to put out,” said Kevin Jarvis, director of veterans’ services in Malden. In addition to Forest Dale, Holy Cross, and other cemeteries, there are about 40 monuments around the city dedicated to veterans.

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Jarvis said he gets plenty of student volunteers to help replace flags, including members of the Malden Catholic High School baseball team.

Chip Locketti is in his 14th year as cemetery superintendent in Duxbury. It can get hectic this time of year at Mayflower Cemetery, which dates back to 1787. “For the retail business it’s Christmas that’s busy, for us it’s Memorial Day,” Locketti said.

At the cemetery’s entrance, the American Legion Post hangs red, white, and blue banners. Telephone poles are draped with flags. A small army of volunteers comes in to replace flags on about 1,200 grave sites. American Legion members, scouts, students, and sports teams all get involved.

Patricia Hopkins has supervised Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery for more than 30 years. “It’s a unique opportunity to help people at probably the worst times of their lives,” said Hopkins, a third-generation Concordian.

Memorial Day is the busiest time. “We’re constantly mowing,” she said. “The final cut is Wednesday or Thursday, The flags are put out two weeks before. The key is that everything has to look good as it can on Monday.”

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Members of the now-closed Concord Elks used to take care of the flags at Sleepy Hollow. Several years ago, the Maynard Elks took over the responsibility. Flag holders missing or damaged are replaced.

“If you don’t make it look good for Memorial Day, get out of the business,” said Tom Doherty, superintendent of Wellesley’s Woodlawn Cemetery. “The work is never done. We’re constantly doing something. We put our white gloves on and do our best job for Memorial Day.”

Wellesley’s Veterans’ Council takes care of the flags. Doherty oversees the planting of flowers. “We let family members plant close to the grave,” said Doherty. “We’ve got guidelines. But you can’t come in here and plant a tree.”

T.J. Voutas is in charge of Pine Grove Cemetery in Westborough. For Memorial Day, a five-person crew will mow the lawn starting at 6 a.m. “We’ll make sure flags are at half mast and that every veteran’s grave has a flag holder,” Voutas said. “We care how it looks. We take pride in our town. If you don’t know the person being buried, you probably heard of him.”

Voutas said that prepping for Memorial Day begins “the minute the plows come off the trucks. Then we’re going 100 miles per hour. It’s tough work. There’s no time for relaxation. When Memorial Day is over, I’ll take the day off.”

David Bogdan, the longtime superintendent of Harmony Cemetery in Georgetown, will be ready for Monday. “No doubt we have more visitors on Memorial Day,” said Bogdan. “That’s why we make it look good.” After contracting out lawn mowing, Bogdan zeroes in on the personal touches Memorial Day requires.

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Tim Kilhart is the DPW director in the town of Harvard. Maintaining Bellevue Cemetery is his responsibility. “Sometimes it’s hard getting help before Memorial Day, but we try to get Bellevue to look pristine. On Friday we’re doing last minute things,” he said.

Kilhart doesn’t have to worry about replacing missing or faded flags. Volunteers, including Boy Scouts, assume those duties. “A lot of people come to plant geraniums a week or two before Memorial Day,” said Kilhart.

Cohasset veterans service officer Philip Mahoney takes charge at Woodside Cemetery, overseeing flag and medallion placements. “We’re near the ocean, so the flags go through a lot of wear and tear from the water and wind,” said Mahoney. “We’ve never had a problem getting volunteers. Over 50 high school kids will be helping me.”

Doherty has been on the job at Wellesley’s Woodlawn Cemetery for 32 years. “I was young when I came here. I thought ‘I can handle this.’ But for Memorial Day, the work’s never done. We’re constantly doing something. It’s late at night when the work is done.”

“It’s the worst and best weekend of the year,” admitted Sleepy Hollow’s Hopkins. “But it’s a great job. I get to be outside.”

For the maintenance of the graveside flags and other duties, Hopkins relies on volunteers like Cheryl Lanchester and Steve Hardy from the Maynard Elks.

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“We bring about 15 or 20 volunteers every year,” said Lanchester. “Veterans are near and dear to the Elks. I look forward to it every year.”

What people from towns small and large do for cemeteries leading up to Memorial Day is “distinctively American,” said Hardy.

And it shows.


Lenny Megliola can be reached at lennymegs41@gmail.com.