Memorial Day was created as a day to remember those who died in the service of our country, beginning right after our Civil War. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, a founder of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union army veterans, declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30 by decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers. There is some thought that the day was chosen because so many flowers are in bloom around the country on that date.
Albert Karlson who worked at the Green River Cemetery beginning in 1959, had been superintendent for 15 years when he retired in 1993. He was one of a line of men who made sure there were flowers for graves of soldiers – and everyone else. He did this with the help of a crew and a large greenhouse, 75 feet long and 25 feet wide.
Karlson grew up working on family farms. As he grew older he also worked in his father’s market which sold the produce and poultry that was raised on the farm. Eventually he enrolled in the two year program at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture studying floriculture. In the summer between those two years he worked for a florist. His interest in growing flowers showed itself early.
However, after graduation he went to work for the Park and Shop supermarket. It was not until he met and married Virginia in Greenfield that the opportunity to return to flowers arrived. His wife was working for the tax collector and heard that the Green River Cemetery was looking for staff. He got a job there in 1959.
When I visited with Karlson he told me that the cemetery greenhouse was busy all year long. “We grew about 3000 geraniums, mostly red, and thousands of other bedding plants: coleus, ageratum, marigolds, begonias, all kinds of flowers including herbs, and trailing plants for containers at some of the graves,” he said.
“When those spring plants were cleared out of the greenhouse we started chrysanthemum cuttings that would be in bloom in the fall. They were used in the cemetery for bouquets, but we also sold them to some of the area florists.”
Karlson went on to say that they also planted flowers on the 150 or so graves that were listed for Perpetual Care. People would include a bequest in their wills, providing money to the cemetery to be used for planted flowers on their graves every year. He explained that over the decades that tradition has died out. They used the interest, but eventually even the principal was gone. When I visited the cemetery I could see that certain monuments were stamped on the back “Perpetual Care.”
I thought maybe there was no work to do in the winter, but Karlson explained that the road to the Chapel had to be kept clear of snow. Not only was it used for services, a mausoleum had been built below where caskets could be kept during the winter until the ground thawed out and graves could be dug. The mausoleum is no longer used because now there is heavy equipment that can dig graves in every season.
Karlson also said there was plenty of paperwork. Careful records of the deeds to each plot and burials had to be kept.
When I visited the Green River Cemetery I looked for the site of the greenhouse which would have been behind the caretaker’s house, a building that is now used as offices for the Northeast Region and North Quabbin Child Advocacy Group. Karlson explained that the greenhouse was probably built at the turn of the 20th century and though it was maintained by painting and repairing the glass, the years had taken their toll. One winter, only a few years before he retired, there was a terrific blizzard with heavy snow and winds. The greenhouse collapsed and it was too expensive to rebuild. Nothing is left of the greenhouse. Nowadays, plants for the cemetery are purchased. It is Snow and Sons who mow the lawns and keep the grounds looking as neat and beautiful as was intended when it was opened in 1851.
Green River Cemetery is one of the early “rural’ cemeteries to be founded. The founders were inspired by the beautiful MountAuburnCemetery created in 1831 which was designed to offer consolation to the bereaved, but its park-like plantings recreated a pastoral beauty that was also intended to provide meditative space for others who might come to stroll under the majestic trees, and among shrubberies and flowers.
Jeff Hampton, current President of the Green RiverCemetery, told me that the couple of weeks before and after Memorial Day are the busiest days for the cemetery. Families bring bouquets blooming with memory, with love and gratitude to those who went before.
Albert Karlson is one of a long line of men who served the dead and the living with the flowers they grew and planted.
Those of us who might visit the cemetery to mourn or to meditate will receive solace, or inspiration and encouragement as we see time and lives spread out before us. Some monuments have been worn to near illegibility but there is the imposing monument for Governor William Barrett Washburn, and the graceful marble sculpture created by Daniel Chester French for the Russell family.
I do not have family or friends lying in the Green River Cemetery, but as I strolled beneath the trees among the graves I sensed the entwining lives of the community, affections shared and the silence of those memories.
Between the Rows May 28, 2016