It is tucked behind a thicket of brush and fencing that shields it from Route 27. Until six years ago, only small stones protruded above the ground, each with only a number on it, some of them were unseen; covered over in dirt. The area was overgrown with grass. Tree limbs and brush covered the 2.5 acre area.
This forgotten piece of Medfield is where 841 human beings who lived at Medfield State Hospital were laid to rest, often because there was no family to take them “home.” It is officially called the Medfield State Hospital Cemetery and it is located on state land off Route 27 just before the Sherborn town line and the Charles River. A neatly painted white sign with black letters marks its location.
When Medfield State Hospital opened in May of 1896, those residents who died at the hospital and who did not have another burial location were buried in Medfield’s Vine Lake Cemetery on the knoll across from Cemetery Pond. Today, that knoll is the resting place for 520 hospital residents who died between the years 1896-1918.
Hospital burials generally stopped in Vine Lake Cemetery in 1918 when Medfield and the rest of the world were hit with the Influenza Epidemic. Influenza swept around the world in several waves, killing at least 20 million people. According to historians, it made one-quarter to one-half of the world’s population ill. It killed more people in less time than any other disease. In Medfield, 17 residents died during the period from the end of September, 1918 to the end of October, 1918.
At the state hospital, the influenza had devastating effects; 73 employees were ill on one particular day. The superintendent and two assistants also contracted the disease. The disease spread to a total of 308 patients, with 55 dying in that one-month period. Suddenly, the Town of Medfield was faced with mass burials. The town pressured the state to build their own cemetery and during the height of the Influenza Epidemic, the current state hospital cemetery, overlooking the Charles River, was laid out with the first patients burials breaking ground in that north end of town location.
Over the years, their identities were forgotten and their memories shrouded in stigma. No names were placed on their graves. Their only remembrance, their only tie to this life here on earth, was a faded number on a small stone marker.
In 2005, the Medfield State Hospital Cemetery Restoration Committee was formed. Boy Scouts undertook Eagle Scout projects to clean out the brush and debris. The Restoration Committee brought awareness of the cemetery’s shameful condition to the community and to the state. With appropriated monies, granite stone markers were placed on each of the 841 hospital grave sites. Research was done and the people’s names, along with their birth and death dates, were placed on the granite markers.
A contest was held to come up with an appropriate quote to be used on a stone marker to be placed at the cemetery’s entrance. The political science students at Medfield High School took part and came up with a variety of quotes. The one selected read: “Remember us for we too have lived, loved and laughed.” That is now located on the impressive granite stone at he entrance to the cemetery.
When the movie “Shutter Island” was being filmed, the memorial stone with that quote and the entrance into the cemetery featured prominently in one of the movie scenes; sending the quote and the cemetery out to a world-wide audience.
Today, you can pull off Route 27 and walk into the Medfield State Hospital Cemetery. It is uniquely Medfield. The buried have now been given the dignity long overdue to them. A dignified entrance leads one into row after row of granite markers, each with its own identity and each presenting a life now remembered.
You can continue into the cemetery and wind your way through the rows of markers, crunching pine needles underfoot in the tree-shaded upper corners of the cemetery or walk in the sun drenched green grass in the center area that is cut and trimmed. There is a special sense of quiet here and a reminder to remember those who were so forgotten and so often cut off from society. You can hear it in the gentle breezes that come off the bordering Charles River: “Remember us for we too have lived, loved and laughed.”