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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘A peek into the lives of people’: Emblems of belief can be an opportunity for expression for fallen veterans

The inscription on the granite cover for Michael Flansaas’ cremated remains reads: “Once met, never forgotten. We’ll meet again.”

“That’s definitely what you could say about my dad,” Zachary Flansaas said with a chuckle. “He was definitely not a forgettable person.”

Zachary, alongside his sister Kim Flansaas and their mother, Sandy Flansaas, carved time out of their afternoon Thursday to spend time at the Washington State Veterans Cemetery on what would have been Michael’s 75th birthday.

It’s a trip they’ve taken a couple of times since Michael died at the end of January.

“He was a good man,” Sandy said. “He would have done anything for me.”

“For anybody,” Zachary added.

Michael’s current resting place is identical to those of his fellow veterans beside him in the columbarium: all made of granite, with each niche measuring 10.5 inches tall by 15 inches wide, with a depth just more than a foot and a half.

Consistency is key in the military. That remains true after death.

“They gave him this space here in honor of his service,” Kim said of her father. “He gets to be here. And it’s wonderful.”

Above “Flansaas” on Michael’s cover was a representation of a flame and cross sprouting out of an open bible, a testament to his faith as a Seventh-day Adventist.

“It gives you a little peek into the lives of people,” Kim said, after the family placed a bouquet of red roses in front of his niche. “Where their hearts were.”

Emblems of belief

The granite headstones among the lush green fields of the cemetery grounds nestled off Espanola Road in Medical Lake are all identical, too, save for the names, ranks, inscriptions and a small symbol at almost every sloping peak, referred to as an “emblem of belief.”

There are seldom opportunities to express one’s individuality as an enlisted member, but after death, the emblem serves as a way to share one’s religious, spiritual, cultural or personal beliefs with the world. There are 78 symbols approved by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs for use on headstones, and a wide array are on display on the hallowed grounds tucked between the rolling hills outside Medical Lake.

There’s a symbol for every major denomination and belief system, including the Star of David, a Native American Medicine Wheel, the Islamic crescent and star, and several representations of the cross for the many Christian denominations.

Others represent how the individual saw themselves, or the world around them. One could choose a landing eagle representing freedom; the Happy Human, the universal symbol for humanists; or the Sand Hill Crane representing the deceased’s connection to nature.

The latter originates in the Pacific Northwest, and was added to the list in 2013 at the request of Portland’s Linda Campbell, the nation’s first military veteran to win permission to have her same-sex spouse buried in a national cemetery. Campbell died of cancer in 2018, and was laid to rest alongside her partner, Nancy Lynchild, in Oregon’s Willamette National Cemetery.

The headstone Campbell and Lynchild share is affixed with the crane.

There are options for all sorts of belief systems on the approved list of symbols, and there’s an option for next of kin to apply for a new one to be added if they feel their deceased’s is not represented.

“A lot of the time, people are kind of surprised there is that much room for variability,” said Elijah Bragg, a certified funeral services director with Heritage Funeral & Cremation. “It’s really nice, because for some of those denominations of faith, there are some that don’t utilize the cross, they do provide options to convey their faith.”

Bragg said the Latin cross, the first option on the list, is the most common selection he sees when working with veterans and their families. It’s followed by the image of the Angel Moroni, revered by the adherents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Rudy Lopez, director of the Washington State Veterans Cemetery, said the list of approved symbols has grown over a span of decades as people have applied to have a symbol representing the beliefs of their loved ones added to the list.

At times, it’s taken court cases to have a symbol added, like with the pagan symbols of the Wiccan star and the Hammer of Thor.

Lopez said having the symbols roughly 2 inches in circumference on a deceased veteran’s headstone or marker can be extremely meaningful for a family.

“They’re very grateful,” Lopez said. “It helps represent that individual and a part of who they were and their faith. It’s a good way of commemorating that individual and who they were.”

Planning for death is always difficult, Lopez said, but he recommends families have those tough conversations ahead of time. He and his team at the cemetery, and both the national and state VA systems, are there to assist with securing government-provided headstones, burial space and benefits to cover associated costs for those who qualify.

“We understand it’s all very difficult,” Lopez said. “And our job is to ease that burden on the families and oftentimes, answer questions that they may not even know they have.”

If a veteran or their family decides against a national or state cemetery, they can still secure a marker through the federal VA department to place in a private cemetery. If they opt for a more decorative headstone, they can apply for a medallion to attach. Those who’d like to keep their veteran’s cremated remains close by can apply for a commemorative urn starting June 10, the VA announced this month.

‘He’d do anything for anyone’

The patriarch of the Flansaas family was a kind man with a great sense of humor, always willing to lend a helping hand to someone in need, Kim said. Sometimes his kindness came at his own expense, her brother Zachary added.

“In fact, he put himself in a lot of bad situations helping other people,” Zachary said. “He was that guy. He’d fix anything for anyone. He’d do anything for anyone.”

Michael was not one to share much about his time in the Army during the Vietnam War, the siblings said. He couldn’t talk about his time in the military without revisiting the loss of his older brother.

When Michael was 18, his brother, Daniel Flansaas, was killed in action in Vietnam. Daniel Flansaas’ death at the age of 20 left a scar on Michael and his family, not unlike the permanent etching of his name into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

“It was hard for him to deal with situations that brought up strong emotion,” Zachary said. “He had a hard time with that, so he’d rather just stay away.”

Michael was actively involved with several veteran organizations throughout his life, Kim said, even though he didn’t always want to talk about his experience in the service.

Kim, Zachary and Sandy all expressed their sincere gratitude to the health care workers at Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center who cared for Michael in his final weeks. The excellent care he received there is partially the reason they decided to lay him to rest at the veterans cemetery.

“They’re so in tune with their military men that it just seemed fitting to put him here – where he mattered,” Zachary said.

When her time comes, Sandy said Michael will be moved to one of the lawns and she will join him at the cemetery.

Before the family climbed back into its SUV, Kim asked Zachary to get his phone to play a video he took the day the VA care team walked Michael’s body out of the facility and gave him what’s referred to as the Final Salute. The video shows dozens of nurses, doctors, hospice aides and pharmacy technicians lining the hallways as Michael’s gurney moved down the hallway, draped in a quilt in the likeness of Old Glory.

“He wasn’t just a number or a person in the bed,” Kim said. “He was somebody who each one of those people knew.”

Zachary held the phone closer, noting that he didn’t notice it until his third or fourth rewatch, but the lights in the hallways seemed to flicker as his father’s gurney passed under each one of them.

“I think that’s his guardian angel going out with him,” Kim said.