The steeple of the Wellesley Village Church towers over downtown Wellesley as the sun rises.

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Wreaths Across America Ceremony at Village Church ~ Remarks Delivered by Brad Harding, Church Historian

January 5, 2022

A moving “Wreaths Across America” ceremony for laying wreaths on the graves of military veterans was conducted Saturday, December 18th in the Village Church churchyard. Brad Harding, our Church Historian, delivered the following thoughtful and informative remarks:

Greetings to each of you.

Where we are all standing became a burial ground in 1777, some 20 years before the church was formally organized. It was bordered by only one road, to my left, which was not paved but which was the main road from Needham to Natick. There was no Central Street.  In fact, Wellesley, as a named town was years away. Our present location originally was West Needham.

The accuracy of historic details sometimes differs according to the source, and so I am pleased to say that the names we are honoring today have been recently compiled and verified mainly by three individuals;  Addison Bowden, who as an Eagle Scout candidate in 2015,  created a complete narrative record of all those buried here; Kirk Smith, a member of Village Church, who chaired the effort to reopen the cemetery for new interments in 2006; and Alden Ludlow, the staff archivist at the Wellesley Historical Society.  My part was simply to read their contributions in order to prepare these remarks. I offer each of them my sincere thanks. One outcome of this is that the church and cemetery are now included on the National Register of Historic Places.

Originally, the design of this place was very plain and austere, perhaps because its purpose as a burial ground reflected an early notion that death was only a grim and joyless event, and also a community concern that a burial ground was a serious matter of public health – nothing more. Even in the 18th century, this was a geographic center of community life.  Residents, though not close together, were dependent on the groundwater that supplied their wells. It was well known, even in ancient times, that the very nature of burial grounds nearby, could contaminate water supplies.

Shortly after the establishment of Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, which is now noteworthy as a   “garden” design, its beauty had  influence here, and the church built a stone wall as a boundary and planted trees and shrubs to enhance a peaceful setting for a cemetery that was directly in the center of a developing commercial district. What had been simply known as a “burying ground” became a “cemetery”, which from a literal translation of ancient Greek means, “sleeping place”.

Efforts by the church since that time, and particularly in 2007, when the Memorial Path was established to accept the interment of cremated remains; this place has become more than a site of permanent repose. The cemetery is once again “open”, and as word has spread of the fact, it has its own kind of subtle vitality.  Pedestrians walking through here, to and from the commuter trains are aware of a quiet space contrasting with noisy traffic. When the weather is right, people come and sit on the benches, sometimes for reflection or eating lunch; sometimes just to rest. Parents walk hand in hand with their children among the markers, likely helping them know that as we all live, we die sooner or later. In fact, each spring, a tradition at this church is to have an Easter egg hunt take place in the cemetery.

One other change here occurred in 2003. The renovation of the church building now allows members gathered in the Common, the room just behind me, to look out and see that the cemetery is truly part of the church, that both together are sacred ground, bearing evidence that our faith community is actually a “cradle to grave” endeavor.

The longest reach of recorded history tells us that we humans have cared for those who have died with reverence and a sense of hopeful mystery. Cemeteries such as ours are part of that long history. Cemeteries offer long-lasting clues about who we have been over time. They remind us of our forebears, and they can tell us, at least partly, of our character as individuals now and our values and aspirations. To view a cemetery as a permanent haven of repose is also to learn much about the nature of our living community.

In this cemetery, our church names those who were baptized and who lived and died as “children of God.”

Cemeteries also preserve symbols of gratitude. The names on the markers tell us who to thank for much that we enjoy in this good life.  They remind us of what we should teach to our children, and because cemeteries tend to last if they are cared for, our children can then impart what society deems important to future generations.   

Here today, we focus our gratitude for those who served the military effort of their time; something greater than themselves. Some committed mere months, others several years, and some even gave up their very lives.  Their cause and their effort extended and protected the civic advantages we now enjoy. And they suggest a hope that we accept the privilege of preserving and extending their legacy.

On behalf of Village Church, I pass on its gratitude for being part of this Wreaths Across America remembrance.

Thank you.

(Bradford Harding, Village Church Historian)