Nine cemeteries and many miles later, we entered the gates of Raleigh National Cemetery. The towering trees and early morning silence put me in mind of Frederick Law Olmsted’s decades-old advice about developing national cemeteries. “The main object,” the father of American landscape architecture wrote to Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs following the Civil War, “would be to establish permanent dignity and tranquility…a sacred grove.”
We maintain all of our national cemeteries as national shrines. Our goal is for each visitor to depart feeling that the grounds, gravesites and environs are a beautiful and awe-inspiring tribute to those who gave much to preserve our freedom and our way of life. A national shrine is a place of honor and memory designed to evoke a sense of serenity, historic sacrifice and nobility of purpose.
The landscapes and features of each cemetery contribute to its shrine status, as does a rigorous system of standards and measures adhered to agency wide. But the sense of honor and tribute derive, for the most part, from the compassion and professionalism of our staff and volunteers. Over 73% of NCA employees are Veterans themselves, and 100% are committed to fulfilling the charge given us by Abraham Lincoln “to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.”
As I toured the southeast and met several recent graduates of NCA’s yearlong Cemetery Director Intern Program, it became clear to me they are well prepared to continue our tradition of quality service. Now with cemeteries of their own to manage, these directors are focused on meeting the expectations of Veterans from past wars as well as those returning today from Afghanistan and Iraq. They are respectful of our history, yet also convinced of the need for innovation.
But most importantly, these emerging leaders know they are the latest standard-bearers along a 150-year continuum of caring for Veterans and families in their hour of greatest need. It’s a calling they take very seriously.
Thank you for taking time to join me on this journey. I hope it has inspired you to visit one of our 131 national cemeteries, to thank a Veteran, or to volunteer in support of Veterans’ causes. I’d also love to hear your comments about the trip!
View photographs of the Raleigh National Cemetery below.
Ron Walters is VA’s Acting Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs and Chief Financial Officer of the National Cemetery Administration. This is the final installment in his ten-part series exploring Veterans cemeteries in the southeastern U.S.