For fifty years, St. Michael’s Cemetery permitted Italians to erect tremendously elaborate monuments to memorialize their dead. Many of these were carved by Italian craftsmen who emigrated to work in the quarries in Barre, Vermont. The monuments pictured in this article were all carved by hand and it would be almost impossible to duplicate them today. These days, grave markers are made using computers and lasers. The artists and craftsmen capable of producing the monuments in St. Michael’s Cemetery are long gone.
The Archdiocese stopped allowing this in the 1950’s and limited the size and style of grave markers. Apparently, the Church hierarchy wanted to curb what they considered decorative excesses and make Catholic cemeteries resemble their Protestant counterparts. It was almost as if they wanted Italians to become Unitarians.
You may find the gravestone pictures strange but please realize you are looking at them through a twenty-first century lens. In our grandparents time having an impressive gravestone gave one elevated status in the community and was an expression of how successful a family had become. In their world, spending several years, or a lifetime’s, income to erect a grave monument was a perfectly rational and reasonable endeavor. The graves of the dead were well tended and often visited. On Sundays whole families would go out to St. Michael’s, bring a lunch and greet their friends and neighbors.
I drove my grandmother, nonna Colomba, to St. Michael’s many times before she died. We would start the day by visiting my grandfather, Vito’s, grave. She would plant some hopeful geraniums, water them and pull out some weeds. Dandelion greens would be saved for a salad that evening. After that she would bring me through the oldest section of the cemetery where many of her friends were buried. At each grave she would stop, say a prayer, and tell stories about the person buried there. She knew they were dead but in a special way telling their stories kept them alive in her memory.
A few weeks ago on a beautiful New England Sunday afternoon I brought my grandson out to Forest Hills in Jamaica plain to visit St. Michael’s. I hadn’t been there in many years and I was curious to see if it had changed. In fact, it had. The graves and monuments were still there and I was surprised I remembered so many of them. Seventy five years ago there would have been scores of families visiting graves at St. Michael’s Cemetery. On this perfect Sunday afternoon in May my grandson and I were the only people there. How times have changed.
Catch up with Part I of this story.
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.