It’s the last Thursday of the month. By 1:30 p.m. on this blue sky April afternoon, the faithful are lining up behind the administration building of the Washington Crossing National Cemetery in Bucks County, Pa.
“Here for the ‘Unattended’?” one man asks another.
“Unattended” is shorthand for an act of grace on the part of the cemetery’s staff, its volunteers, and hundreds of other supporters. At 2 o’clock on the last Thursday of every month this group stands in as family for vets whose memorial services would otherwise go unattended, ensuring that all due honors are received. “It’s something that’s got to be done,” one man says.
More than two dozen cars line up for the procession, and they are joined by at least 20 motorcycles, members of the Warriors Watch Riders, proud supporters of the troops and their families. Today they are the color guard, offering a stirring wall of red, white and blue during the day’s ceremony.
By law, all eligible veterans are entitled to military funeral honors – a detail of two uniformed military personnel, at least one from the veteran’s branch of service; the folding and presentation of the U.S. burial flag; and the playing of “Taps.”
At Washington Crossing, such honors – daily since the first burial here in 2010 -- are rendered at one of two “committal shelters” on the cemetery grounds. In addition, the Guardians of the National Cemetery, a group of local volunteers, provides teams of three to seven veterans to serve as honor guards that respectfully stand watch at the services and fire the rifle volleys in salute.
The procession makes its way past row upon row of white headstones. Maybe a hundred gather for these “unattended,” a standing-room-only crowd spilling past the roof of the open-air committal shelter. A wooden urn, adorned with the coats of arms of the five branches of the U.S. military, sits on the small altar, a folded flag leaning against it. The Army detail consists of two noncommissioned officers. The honor guard is off to the right, the flags of the color guard on the left.
“We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. … Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of a free and undivided republic."
A representative of the cemetery thanks those in attendance. “Your presence here today continues to reinforce our commitment that no veteran should take this final journey alone.” The chaplain speaks of a life of service, and the love and sacrifice of veterans.
The names of the deceased are read:
Edwin Boerner, U.S. Army
Sydney Rigby, U.S. Navy
Michael Suppa, U.S. Navy
Richard Crouthamel, U.S. Navy
Gary Liebert, U.S. Navy
The honor guard of seven fires three volleys, and then, in response to the command “Present arms,” holds their rifles vertically in front of their bodies. Veterans in the crowd raise their arms in salute.
The mournful call of “Taps” echoes across the fields.
When the last note has faded, one of the soldiers moves to the flag. He holds it flat, with one hand above and one below. Facing the other soldier, they slowly unfold it, stepping smartly back as each triangle is undone. When unfurled, the flag is crisply snapped. And the refolding – done as if it had been raised from a casket – begins. First in half. Then half again. And then folded in from the corner, end over end. Thirteen folds in all, a final tuck, and then only the blue starred field is visible.
Holding it level again, one hand above and one below, the soldier lowers himself to one knee and presents the flag “on behalf of a grateful nation” to a volunteer who today represents the family of the deceased.
The soldiers salute the folded flag and march off. Thanks are again conveyed for attending. The honor guard quietly steps away.
The solemn silence of the assembled is broken as they shake hands and greet each other in hushed tones. There are many familiar faces, and they will see each other again, on the next last Thursday, fulfilling the 150-year-old “Memorial Day Order” issued by John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic on May 5, 1868:
“We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. … Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of a free and undivided republic.
“If other eyes grow dull and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and the warmth of life remains in us.”