Cemeteries always are somber places, but none more so than those where veterans are buried.
And so it was Sunday afternoon at the Southern Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Union Grove, where thousands of uniform headstones are laid out in ever-expanding rows, marking the final resting place of soldiers, sailors, fliers and Marines who fought in U.S. wars.
World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq is chiseled onto stone, sometimes more than one theater of operations as on Harvey J. Bulgrin's headstone: PFC, USA AF, World War II: Naples, Foggio, Rome, Arno, North Appenines. Many list rank: Sgt., PFC, Capt., WAC... Commendations: Air Medal, Bronze Star, Purple Heart... POW. And a final tribute: Beloved father, husband, grandfather.... Sweetie Pie. Loving mother. Peanut. Together again, Now and Forever. Love you, Mom. Thanks for all you have done. My beloved husband.
"You can just feel it, can't you?" said one mother, slowly limping back to her car after placing flowers on a grave. "Everybody should come here..." She choked up, then resumed. "When I buried my husband here, there were eight funerals that day."
The Wisconsin Dept. of Veterans Affairs held its Memorial Day ceremony at the cemetery Sunday morning. All grave sites were decorated with small flags; many with small bouquets of flowers. A widow brought a lawn chair, and sat in silence for a long while at her husband's grave.
About 2 p.m., a lone bugler walked among the graves and played Taps. The dozen or so visitors stopped what they were doing and listened respectfully to the familiar, mournful notes, the first verse running through our heads:
Day is done, gone the sun,All is not well, of course, as long as we must dig fresh graves for soldiers who fought all over the world, reserving 105 acres in little Union Grove for the purpose. The allied death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to CNN today, is 5,679. Does that include Brian Naseman, 36, of Racine, a member of the Wisconsin National Guard, killed Friday in Iraq? Who knows? Don't even ask about the number of casualties on the other side, military and civilian. Seven and one-half years after 9/11 there still isn't agreement on the final number who died in the World Trade Center attack; 2,974 is just one of the figures you can find on the 'net.
From the lake, from the hills, from the sky;
All is well, safely rest, God is nigh...
When he was finished playing Taps, John Neufeld gave a sharp salute to all the brave men and women buried around him, but especially his grandson, Evan Bixler of Racine, who died in Iraq, Dec. 24, 2006.
And the rest of the mourners at the cemetery resumed pulling weeds from a loved-one's burial spot, or adjusting the flowers they'd brought, or saying one more prayer, one more thank you, one more goodbye.
Neufeld asked me, "Do you have someone buried here?"
"Yes," I replied. "All of them."
Racine's Memorial Day parade begins Monday at 10 a.m. at West Boulevard and Washington Avenue; there will be a ceremony at Graceland Cemetery’s Veterans Memorial at 11 a.m. Other services are listed here.