Attending the annual Memorial Day Avenue of Flags ceremony at Sunset Memory Gardens

May 27, 2008

Note: The 2017 Avenue of Flags Memorial Day will take place at 2 p.m. on Monday, May 29th.

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Sunset Memory Gardens Avenue of Flags – Memorial Day 2007

A ceramic ashtray filled with spent shell casings rests atop my desk. My maternal grandfather bought the ashtray at Galleries Aux Lafayette in Paris in 1938. Sixty years later, a member of the veteran’s firing squad that honored my father at his funeral collected the spent cartridges from the grounds near his grave in Madison’s Forest Hill Cemetery. My sister has the burial flag – a United States flag provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to drape the casket or accompany the urn of a deceased veteran who served honorably in the U. S. Armed Forces.

My father, Frederic James Goff, Jr., served in the U.S. Marine Corps on the Asia-Pacific front during World War II. He also served as a 1st Lieutenant in G Company. 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines in “The Forgotten War” in Korea and was awarded a Purple Heart for injuries sustained in combat. He survived, but his younger brother, who is buried near him, did not: Wallace Edward Goff was the first Madison-area man killed in combat in Korea.

Ten years after his death, I still haven’t mustered the stamina to attend the annual Memorial Day services at Forest Hill Cemetery. My grief is too palpable and I’m reluctant to expose it in public. Instead, I make solitary visits to his grave throughout the year, as well as visiting those of other family members.

This year, I decided to attend a Memorial Day service at a cemetery that evoked no personal memories for me.

Four years ago, I wrote two articles for The Capital Times about preserving and decorating gravestones. In the course of my research, I learned about the Avenue of Flags at Sunset Memory Gardens and decided that one day I wanted to see this once-a-year spectacle, which now features almost 300 flags.

My sister purchased a special box to preserve and display my father’s burial flag. According to the Sunset Memory Gardens representative I interviewed four years ago, many of the families of veterans buried at that cemetery opt to leave their burial flags at the cemetery, knowing that once a year, on Memorial Day, they will be on display.

On the weekend before Memorial Day, volunteers (often members of a local Boy Scout troop) plant small U.S. flags near the graves of veterans buried at Sunset Memory Gardens. On Memorial Day, members of American Legion Post #151 arrive early in the morning to erect flagpoles around the perimeters of the cemetery and hoist the hundreds of burial flags the cemetery has in storage. In front of each flagpole is a small metal marker with the name of a deceased veteran. After the Memorial Day service, members of American Legion Post #151 lower all the flags and carefully fold each one into “the shape of a tri-cornered hat, emblematic of the hats worn by colonial soldiers during the war for Independence.” They also remove the flagpoles and special markers.

This year, the afternoon of Memorial Day in Madison was bright and sunny. There was a strong breeze, so all the flags aloft over Sunset Memory Gardens were snapping and waving in the wind.

The cemetery is on Mineral Point Road, across from West Towne. If you’ve only seen it in passing as you drove by, you may be unaware of how large it is, since your view is obscured by strip malls on either side. The Sunset Memory Gardens property extends far to the left and right of what’s visible from Mineral Point Road and is almost a block deep. Within the cemetery are a series of small, winding roads that mark off various spaces. It was along these roads, as well as the main entrance, that the flags flew on Memorial Day.

More than 100 people of all ages – including military personnel in dress uniforms – attended the 30 minute Memorial Day service at Sunset Memory Gardens. It began promptly at 2 p.m. with a welcome by post commander Chris Ogden and ended with taps played by Bob Edwards and Jack Fitzgerald.

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Corporal Thomas Brown, USMC (in uniform) and his family (to the left and right) participating in the Memorial Day service

After the ceremony, I walked around the cemetery searching for flags with only 48 stars – the flags from 1959 or earlier, before Alaska and Hawaii were admitted to the union. I found a few (looking for even rows of stars), but it was difficult to photograph them as they waved in the wind.

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The 48 star flag was the official flag of the United States from 1912 until 1959

As I walked around the grounds, two women approached me and attempted to engage me in conversation. At first, I politely answered their questions, but when one of them thrust a Jehovah’s Witness pamphlet at me, I quickly put my camera to my eye in attempt to reclaim my space and my privacy. Earlier, I had gladly accepted a handmade, commemorative poppy from another women. The latter are a traditional symbol honoring those who died to serve the nation. The former was an unwanted intrusion.

Later, I encountered a man riding slowly around the cemetery on his bicycle. Though I can’t be sure, he was probably about the same age as my father would have been if he were still alive. We talked briefly about the flags and how, for too many people, Memorial Day had become part of a three-day weekend reserved for shopping and vacations.

Sunset Memory Gardens 2007

I left the cemetery before the volunteers began lowering the flags and removing the flagpoles. After I returned home, I pulled out the printed program for the ceremony I attended. On the back I’d written down some statistics provided by Lt. Colonel Michael George (Commander 1st Squadron 105th Calvary), the soldier who gave an address at the ceremony: 36 million men and women have served in the U.S. military since 1776; more than 1 million have died in combat; more than 27,000 military personnel from Wisconsin have died in combat since our state joined the union in 1848. According to today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “As of Monday, May 26, 2008, at least 4,082 members of the U.S. military have died in the Iraq war since it began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.”

I was wrong about believing I could attend a Memorial Day ceremony that evoked no personal memories for me. With so many dead there are bound to be connections. While no member of my family is buried at Sunset Memorial Gardens, I recognized one of the names read during yesterday’s ceremony: It belonged to an old friend of my parents.

Update (5/25/2012): Today I received a wonderful email From Corporal Thomas Brown, USMC that reads as follows: “Sorry to bother you but I wanted to thank you for taking this photo. That’s me in the uniform with my family to the left and right.The photo definitely brought back some good memories. I’m eternally grateful for your fathers service and I assure you, the world is a better place because of him. My grandfather, Thomas McGann Sr., was also a Marine in WWII and his son, Thomas Jr., was a Marine in Vietnam. Hope to see you there on Monday. I don’t fit into the uniform anymore but I’m still the tallest one there, I should be easy to spot.” I was unable to attend the ceremony, but glad to read that this post and its photographs had brought back some good memories for this Marine.

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