May 29, 2012
PHOENIX, Ariz. – Near the middle of the cemetery, out among the rows of headstones and small flags, I see a woman alone in a folding chair. She sits with her head down. She wears a wide-brimmed hat, so I cannot tell if she is reading a book or focusing on memories.
I wanted to hear her story, but this isn’t the right time. Maybe another day.
Small flags and occasional flowers add Memorial Day sparkle to the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett
When I entered the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona about an hour before closing on Memorial Day, I saw more visitors than I expected. Sunset was approaching. Everyone was walking slowly among the headstones. There were several couples, a few families and several people alone.
A sign outside the cemetery office reminds visitors that if they see a headstone without a flag on this holiday honoring veterans, replacements are available at the office.
A couple leaving the neat rows of headstones walk slowly to their van parked at the edge of the street. They stop for a kiss.
Walking among the headstones, I see tracks that probably are those of a wheelchair. The tracks stretch several rows in a straight line from the street to a specific headstone.
The sun is touching the horizon now. The day’s heat is fading into the night. Several rows away I see a couple kneeling. They are silent as they sweep dust off the name and dates on a headstone.
When I visit cemeteries and read the names and dates, I wonder about all those lives. I wonder about their achievements, their dreams and their legacies. I hope their final hours were in peace, not pain.
I hope this holiday’s meaning is remembered. Memorial Day is much more than a day off from work to enjoy hamburgers, cold drinks and shopping. In fact, the national holiday honoring our military veterans dates to 1868 when it began as Decoration Day.
The name was changed to Memorial Day later. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by Congress.
Today, at many national cemeteries, the special day means a flag at the headstone of every veteran, even if family and friends are unable to visit.
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