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A Place of Beauty, History, and Spiritual Renewal: The Temple Israel Cemetery in Wakefield, MA
By Paula Folkman
Soon after the 1854 founding of Temple Israel, the establishment of a cemetery in South Reading (now Wakefield) in 1859 helped to attract new members and generate much-needed funds. Even for assimilated Jews, burial in consecrated grounds was a necessity. Following the “rural cemetery” movement made popular by the founders of Mount Auburn Cemetery (1831), Temple Israel’s trustees hoped to create a landscaped garden cemetery apart from urban life – a tranquil and beautiful place where families could commemorate their loved ones and find solace in an inviting and natural setting.
Given its importance in religious life, burial in the cemetery during those first few decades required application to Temple Israel’s elected Board of Trustees. A decision was rendered and a fee assessed (from $1.00 – $20.00) based on the applicant’s economic circumstances, devotion to the faith, and the condition of the deceased. The Board also assigned a minyan of ten men to attend each funeral, levying a fine of two dollars for truancy. As the congregation of Adath Israel grew in size and wealth, members began to embrace the Reform movement. They adopted various changes in ritual and practice, such as relaxing the strict observance of minyans and restrictions on burial. This movement toward assimilation and reform was also reflected in the cemetery itself, as epitaphs began to appear in English, rather than in German and Hebrew. The evolution of tastes in cemetery architecture and landscape design are evident, from the historical areas to the more contemporary sections.
Over the years, the beautiful cemetery next to Lake Quannapowitt has remained a central feature in the life of Temple Israel, and as early as 1910, the minutes of a congregational meeting note that “everything is in the finest possible condition.” This fine care was largely the result of the work of the Cemetery Committee, which had been formed with the cemetery’s establishment in 1859. The committee’s responsibilities included overseeing the purchase of plots, burials, landscaping and maintenance contracts, and general stewardship of funds. Various improvements and additions included a chapel with a clock tower (1880) and the installation of a “privy for the use of ladies” (1883) upon the suggestion of the cemetery’s superintendent, who commented that “this may seem a queer suggestion but remember it’s a long ride here for your Ladies.” This chapel was replaced in the 1970’s with a new structure that included a cold-weather crypt, storage space, and toilet facilities. That structure is in serious need of repair, and plans are now being developed by the cemetery committee to make much-needed improvements.
Today, the Temple Israel Cemetery continues to play an important role in the life cycle of the congregation’s members as a place of history, contemplation, and spiritual renewal, and a resource both to those families whose loved ones are interred there, but also to families whose loved ones rest elsewhere.
A memorial service is held at the cemetery each spring. A new format for this service will permit us to take a brief, guided walk along cemetery paths as we honor our well-known and lesser known historical figures, loved ones, dear friends near and far – and then gather together for our traditional service. We urge the congregation to join us, for each visit to this sacred place instructs us in the value of life, and in the comfort of memory.
This year, the congregational Walk and Service of Remembrance will take place at Wakefield Cemetery at 10:00 a.m. on Sunday, June 5, 2016.