Death and burial are completely counter to what we Americans like to talk about, but we’re coming up on Memorial Day, a day designated to remember and honor all deceased members of the American armed forces, so today’s blog is going to ground – literally.  We’re going to talk about cemeteries.
     Most Americans are familiar with Arlington National Cemetery just across the Potomac River from Washington DC.  Each Memorial Day, volunteers place a small flag by  every grave (!) on its 624 acres. 
     Arlington was actually the ancestral home of Robert E. Lee’s wife, who was a great- granddaughter of Martha Washington. It has an interesting post-Civil war history that includes a tax sale and a Supreme Court ruling that the Lee family actually still owned the property after part of it had been turned into a Union cemetery.  (The family eventually sold it back in 1875 – while Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert, was Secretary of the Army.)
     The Department of the Army manages it now, along with the United States Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery in Washington DC.
     The Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration has a bigger job when it comes to cemeteries – it maintains 131 national cemeteries in 39 states and Puerto Rico plus an array of soldier’s lots and monuments.
   Some Tuskegee Airmen (and my own father) are buried in Minnesota’s Fort Snelling National Cemetery.  Preparations are in full swing for this weekend’s services and visitors.  Click here for a slide show
     Fort Snelling National Cemetery is the home of the first all-volunteer Memorial Rifle Squad (MRS) in the National Cemetery Administration. The MRS performed their first service in June 1979. There is a squad for each weekday and they can provide honors for as many as 17 veterans each day.
     The squad members are all honorably-discharged veterans and besides the riflemen, each squad has a bugler who plays “Taps.” As of July of 2010, they had rendered the final salute for 56,111 veterans. Two special notes of interest:  The squad’s members’ average age is more than 70 years old and they have never missed a scheduled service during their existence because of inclement Minnesota weather.
     The MRS travels from gravesite to gravesite (Fort Snelling has 323 acres) in a special bus but is all business once they alight.  The leader briefly greets the immediate family and then the squad performs the rifle salute and Taps.  It is a very moving experience.  For more information about the national cemeteries, click here.
     Many states have established state veterans cemeteries. Eligibility is similar to the national cemeteries, but may include residency requirements. Even though most may have been established or improved with Government funds through the VA’s State Cemetery Grants Program, state veterans cemeteries are run solely by the states.  Click here for more information.
     The Department of the Interior’s National Park Service maintains 14 national cemeteries including those with familiar names from the Civil War (Shiloh, Gettysburg and Vicksburg) and Little Bighorn of General Custer fame. Of the 14, 12 are closed to new interments but two still have room for modern-day veterans. Click here for more information
      Of course, the government-run cemeteries make up just a small part of the country’s patchwork of burial places.  It seems like each town has at least one cemetery where veterans are buried.  On Memorial Day, the flags will be flying, the parades will be proceeding and the speeches will be stirring. 
    There are 72 hours in the upcoming 3-day weekend.  I’m sure you have plans, but if you have a chance to spend a couple of hours watching a parade with flags, bands, marching units and kids, or hearing a few heart-felt speeches about patriotism and sacrifice, why not take it?  It’ll do your heart good.
The CAF Red Tail Project is a volunteer-driven 501c3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit redtail.org.

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