For a time when teaching at Wooster School in Danbury, I’d make my way down the road to St. Peter Cemetery in the afternoons, especially while my son was in after-school sports and I had time to pass before picking him up. I’d walk up and down the rows of the large space and contemplate. I’d find myself drawn to certain names and question why some stones were one shape or another or how families honored their loved ones.
Last Veterans Day I went to St. Peter Cemetery again with someone dear to me who has family buried there. We paid our respects and began to walk around. We noticed a tiny patch of flat cement peeking out from the grass, and quickly realized it was a military stone. We walked a short distance more and saw another and yet another. Some are overgrown to the point of complete coverage. When pulling the grass and earth up at one in particular, we noticed the letters from World — as in World War — formed in the roots of the grass.
I began to question the process of buried veterans and, frankly, anyone. Does it rest on the collective us to share the responsibility of maintaining these sites with families and communities who may not always be able to do so?
When walking the grounds at the Quaker Cemetery in New Milford, which is just yards from Route 7 and dates back to 1797, it is clear there is a need for attention if these sites are meant to be maintained and honor the past. Some stones are broken or bent, some are faded to blank faces, and others are nearly covered and grown over. And yet, in and around the faded and forgotten, there still stands the occasional floral decoration or American flag.
Even at the State Veterans Cemetery in Middletown, one of only 90 of its kind in the country, and where there’s a bit more funding for regular maintenance, there’s always work to do. With plots steadily filling up over the years, it has been under construction for expansion since 2015. When entering the site, the upright, white uniform markers are striking as they stand in attention as their namesakes once did when serving our country. This scene is especially eye-opening as the sprawling cemetery is stationed next to Calvary Cemetery, a much older and smaller burial site maintained by St. Mary of Czestochowa Catholic Church, which must lean on parishioners and volunteers for upkeep. In the face of rising costs, the church announced an increase in cemetery fees as of March.
On my visit to the state cemetery, I meet Craig Czaja of Czaja Brothers excavators, whose family has, for four generations, offered excavation, sitework and cemetery services, including for the state cemetery. He is moving two large headstones from the husband-and-wife section, wherein when a spouse dies, the stones are replaced to include both names. With the amount of work to be done for upkeep, Czaja admits, “it would be nice if more people volunteered.” He says, however, that the overall number of burials has dropped. “There was a time when there’d easily be 100 a year, and now that’s likely closer to 30, given the family’s request.”
How to help
At one time, especially in the early 19th century before park systems were put in place as a space for public recreation, cemeteries were used as gathering spaces for picnics. That may not appeal to modern society, but learning more about the sites, especially where a forgotten family member may lay, certainly does. In addition to talking to family about those who’ve gone before us and taking a moment to honor them, consider volunteering at your local cemetery to help keep the burial sites clean and open. For this Memorial Day, local groups across the state will look for helping hands to plant flags beside veterans’ graves. Also, Wreaths Across America calls upon people to help throughout the year in preparation for its observance on Dec. 14, in which wreaths are laid at each site and names are spoken aloud as part of a national ceremony. As of March, only a little over 200 of the 12,500 wreaths for the State Veterans Cemetery in Middletown event had been sponsored.