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Another Memorial Day has come and gone. It's the first in many years when I have not been on the front line at a cemetery, helping families find graves, handing out flags, ensuring the cemetery was at its peak of beauty, organizing a Memorial Day observance. I felt an emptiness. I'm no longer out there actively working with families. In my 30+ years in the death care profession I've worked nearly every Memorial Day weekend, visiting with the families of the veterans and hearing their stories - and of course with any families who had loved ones buried in the cemetery.
In recent years I was the staff liaison with a veterans' cemetery board of trustees. I was privileged to get to know and to work with veterans of World War II, the Korean conflict, the VietNam conflict and the Gulf War. I loved the meetings with these heroes and working with them to organize meaningful (and purposely non-political) observances to honor their fallen comrades. As a member of what used to be the younger generation (not so much now!) I was often amazed at their youthful outlook on current events. The oldest man on the board is now in his early 90s. He's Jewish. He's also an honorary Irishman courtesy of a Seattle Irish heritage group. And just as up on current events as anyone in the U.S.
As a sidebar, I also helped organize Pearl Harbor Day/December 7 ceremonies. A few years ago, that ceremony was suspended because so few of the participants were still living. That was so sad, and sobering. All of the Pearl Harbor Day ceremonies I helped organize included men who had lied about their age so they could serve their country. The last one included a man who had enlisted at the age of 15 by lying about his age - obviously. I watched as he struggled to walk, in full uniform (a very small man, maybe in his prime he'd been five-foot-six) with two canes, up the aisle to the front of the assemblage, to tell his story. Oh my was his posture erect and oh my how humble he was. I cried listening to his story. I still do even now.
I started out wanting to recount a kind of spooky and funny story about the time I was attacked by crows (fortunately, they were outside my home) on a Memorial Day weekend after shooing them away from stealing flowers from graves. But these other memories overcame me. I'll go into the crows story some other time. It was published in the ICFA Magazine a few years ago, but it's still pretty bizarre.
The reason I'm writing this little blog entry is to try to articulate the importance, on various levels, of Memorial Day to those of us on the front line. It's easy, as always, to see it as just another thorn in the side of a cemeterian. As always, it's so important that we remember the reason we're there, and to forget the inconvenience of working on what amounts to Christmas to cemeterians.
A friend of mine once said that funeral directors are the most important people to families in a death - for three or four days - but cemeterians have eternal care of the remains of loved ones. I'm not slagging on funeral directors at all, because we all know the impressions they make on the families they serve over those intense and time-lapsed days will also stay in the families' memories forever. And funeral directors are showing much innovation in their after-care programs and I believe sincerely are meaning to help families, not just look for sales leads.
But as a cemeterian, originally, coming back to my opening paragraph, I wanted to thank all my fellows in the profession for taking such good care of our dead, be they Veterans or ordinary citizens. I spent a lot of years doing the same and never felt less than honored to do so. As do you.