By: Matt Berg, Globe Correspondent, May 20, 2020
Thousands of flags were planted at the gravestones of fallen soldiers in St. John’s Cemetery in Worcester Wednesday morning, continuing a tradition that stretches back over seven decades as Memorial Day approaches.
When organizer Kevin Mercadante reached out to city officials for assistance with the flag placement at the cemetery — a tradition that American Legion Post 201 began in the 1940s — he was worried there wouldn’t be enough hands to keep the event going. After all, state officials restricted large gatherings and enacted social distancing requirements that have made such events challenging to coordinate.
But thanks to Lew Evangelidis, the Worcester County sheriff, over a hundred volunteers from the Reserve Deputy Sheriff Association joined in the ceremony — it was “an unbelievable, overwhelming response,” the sheriff said.
“Memorial Day may be the most sacred day we have as Americans to memorialize those people who have offered themselves up over the centuries,” Evangelidis said. “We always try to help when there is a need in the community, and there’s no greater need than something like this.”
With blue skies and mild temperatures, enthusiastic volunteers were given face masks, hand sanitizer, and a handful of flags as they arrived at the cemetery grounds at 9 a.m. A small ceremony kicked off the day, with a local deacon blessing the flags and a singer serenading the crowd with “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful”.
Volunteers then divided into small groups and descended upon the cemetery, placing as many flags they could. Gravestones in the cemetery are nine feet apart from each other, allowing for plenty of social distancing, Mercadante said. By the end, about 4,000 flags were placed in total.
What piqued the organizers’ attention was each volunteer’s habit of reading the gravestones before planting a flag. The connections between the volunteers and the cemetery run deep — one volunteer’s father who is buried in the cemetery was in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II, and another volunteer has three uncles buried there.
“When you decorate a stone, you get a sense of an individual’s life,” Mercadante said. “It’s personal on that level. That’s what made it so special.”
“You could feel the sense of appreciation for what happened today,” Evangelidis said. “So many people have willingly put their lives on the line for our country and freedom, and we felt honored to step up and take on this roll.”
As festivities concluded, the cemetery slowly emptied of volunteers. But long after everyone else left, one volunteer, Domingo Ham, an Army veteran from Chelsea, could be seen in the graveyard stepping from gravestone to gravestone with his arm cocked. He was saluting every fallen veteran in the cemetery, the organizers said.
“It blossomed,” Mercadante said. “We just turned [the event] into such a major affair that was absolutely wonderful.”