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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Honoring those who’ve gone: Cemeteries differ, but traditions continue for Memorial Day

Kelsey Lopez spent a blustery Friday afternoon arranging the flowers at her grandfather’s grave just so, exactly as her grandmother taught her.

“Now, looking back, I wish I would have had him tell me more stories,” said Lopez, kneeling next to the grave of airman Larry Swanger, who served five tours of duty with the Air Force in Vietnam.

Swanger is one of hundreds of service men and women and their spouses interred at Washington State Veterans Cemetery in Medical Lake.

Lopez was carrying out the tradition her grandmother, Karen Swanger, has performed for more than 50 years, visiting the grave sites of loved ones on Memorial Day weekend and remembering. It’s a practice the region’s cemeteries hope to get closer to normal now, 15 months into a pandemic, but one that will still bear the marks of public safety practices.

“There was only a brief period when the governor’s requirements were for us, as cemeteries, to only receive remains and place them,” said Rudy Lopez, director of the veteran’s cemetery. “It was about a week, 10 days at the most.”

But all this year, attendance at the ceremonies, which include full military honors with a gunfire volley and the presentation of the flag, have been capped. The most recent guidance from the governor’s office limits outdoor ceremonies to 400 people, which is rare at the cemetery in Medical Lake, Lopez said, but strict enough that the traditional Memorial Day observance of a band, parade and raising of the flag will be curtailed for the second straight year.

That’s too bad, said Pam Rector, who stopped by Friday afternoon to honor members of her family.

“So many in the community have loved ones that have been to war,” Rector said. “That’s why I love Veteran’s Day and things like that – Memorial Day – to honor them.”

Fairmount Memorial Association, after canceling many of their observances in 2020, has been able to bring back some of those events with more relaxed guidelines this weekend, said David Ittner, president and chief executive officer of the organization that runs seven memorial parks in the area.

“It’s been only the past couple of months when we’ve been able to hold something like a normal service,” Ittner said.

Holy Cross Funeral and Cemetery Services, which runs three sites for the Spokane Catholic Diocese, will celebrate an outdoor Mass at 10 a.m. Monday at both Holy Cross in Spokane and St. Joseph in Spokane Valley, said Rick McLean, executive director of the organization.

Holy Cross continued to hold graveside services throughout the pandemic in accordance with local guidelines, McLean said. That sometimes meant celebrating Mass outdoors with mourners gathered 20 and 30 yards apart.

“We never stopped doing our services,” McLean said. “We’ve always been here for our families.”

If there’s good news, it’s that a large portion of the population in Washington state elects to be cremated, Ittner said. Statewide, the rate is greater than 75%, which is well above the 55% average in the nation, according to the industry group Cremation Association of North America. That allows families to make long-term plans, and if there were services postponed due to restrictions on gathering and travel, loved ones will be able to celebrate life in the future, Ittner said.

Cremation rates among Holy Cross’s clientele are lower than other organizations, McLean said. The Catholic church permitted cremation beginning in 1963 under stricter guidelines, but many still choose a traditional burial, McLean said. Still, the cemetery has plans for 20 or 30 families to hold delayed services now that pandemic restrictions are starting to ease, he said.

Some accommodations at Fairmount created by the pandemic are likely here to stay, Ittner said. Fairmount invested in livestreaming technology for funeral services just before the pandemic hit, Ittner said, an option that will likely continue to prove popular for family members who can’t easily travel.

“It only happens once in a lifetime. It’s a pretty special event,” Ittner said.

The Memorial Day observance will also see the return of the “flag cruise,” a way for loved ones to remain in their vehicles and tour the almost 4,000 American flags that have been placed in the association’s cemeteries commemorating service.

Kelsey Lopez, who’s attended wreath-laying ceremonies and observances at the Memorial Day ceremony in Medical Lake, said the return of those types of honors are welcome. Along with her grandfather, she stopped to reflect at the grave of Nathan Beyers, a high school classmate killed in an explosion in Iraq in July 2011.

“It’s just the day that you truly get to think about the ones that you’ve lost,” Lopez said. “Especially in this crazy world right now, you know?”

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers laid a wreath Friday at the cemetery and chatted with Rudy Lopez about grant opportunities. The cemetery is in the final phase of additional construction for more burial plots and niches, but the pandemic didn’t slow families who sought interment at the site, Rudy Lopez said. The cemetery has been exceeding its usual monthly requests for services for several months now, a product of the suspension of military honors during the first few months of the pandemic, he said.

McMorris Rodgers said observances on Memorial Day, even virtual ones, were important to continue.

“It’s important to remember the sacrifice,” the congresswoman said. “So many men and women have given everything for our country, and that’s what this weekend is about. Honoring their sacrifice.”

For Kelsey Lopez, the tradition of placing the flowers goes beyond honoring the wars and the dead.

It’s about sharing a few more moments with the grandfather who always made a point of telling her she was beautiful.

“Sometimes on my hardest days, the times that are tough, I want to just come out here and be in the presence of my grandpa,” she said. “It actually brings more peace to me, being out there with them, than not coming.”