‘Rest in peace. You did well.’

Published 7:46 pm Saturday, May 30, 2015

I appreciate a good day off just as much as the next guy, but one holiday I choose to work every year is Memorial Day. The opportunity to attend the Memorial Day ceremony at the Albert G. Horton Jr. Memorial Veterans Cemetery is too much of a blessing to ignore.

Maybe that seems a little strange to you. I would have considered it an odd thing to say myself a few years ago, but I’ve come to look forward to my visits there for the Memorial Day ceremony every year. There’s a connection to bravery, honor and sacrifice that makes the place special, and one can hardly attend one of the ceremonies without taking away feelings of both pride and humility.

This year’s visit was especially poignant. While I was walking around the cemetery after the brief ceremony had concluded, I was struck by the gravity of the day.

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Strolling with my camera between row after row of grave stones marked with flags, I was looking for an image that would encapsulate the many emotions experienced by those who were there.

I soon saw a woman standing in front of a particular stone and quietly weeping. I snapped a couple of quick shots from a respectful distance, waited for her to compose herself and then went and introduced myself, apologizing for the intrusion. She told me her husband of 51 years was buried there, describing how she’d met him when he was stationed in Germany, and she told me she always promised him that she’d come back one day and not cry. I was moved nearly to tears myself.

Excusing myself, I started walking back toward my car, thinking I’d captured the essence of the event, when I saw a family holding hands and praying on the edge of one of the cemetery’s sections. Waiting for them to finish, I shot a few photos of them, and when they were done I introduced myself and asked which veteran they were visiting.

The parents, both veterans themselves, told me they brought their three children each year to choose the grave of a random veteran to honor with a flag and prayer.

“We just come here every year to remind the kids that freedom isn’t free,” the father said.

Struck by the kindness of this family and the parents’ commitment to their children’s education, I promised to pray for God’s blessings on them and took my leave.

But there was still one section of the cemetery I’d avoided — the newest one, the one with the freshest graves. Heading up the knoll, I saw what I’d feared: young women grieving over nearly new graves. That’s the photo that ran in Tuesday’s paper, as it was the most moving of the images I captured.

But the story I wrote about the event concentrated on another vignette that was, in its way, even more powerful. As I stood in that section, I saw an older gentleman walking briskly behind each row of gravestones, reaching out with his right hand and brushing it along the top of each white stone as he passed.

When I stopped him to ask why, he told me he was doing it for all the “mothers, brothers, sisters and cousins” who could not come to honor their family members. His message, he said, was “Rest in peace. You did well.”

That’s why I never miss a Memorial Day service at the Horton veterans’ cemetery.