Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Visiting Madison's Forest Hill Cemetery, Part Two: Preparations for Memorial Day

On Saturday, May 20, the Madison Parks Department hoped to have 40-50 volunteers show up at Forest Hill Cemetery to put U.S. flags out on gravestones prior to Memorial Day. Kathy Lange, who works in the the cemetery office, told me "maybe 20" showed up that day.

In addition to these volunteers, Lange told me there are still some VFW posts that put flags out. However, many of the service and fraternal groups that used to help with this task, no longer participate. "Maybe the guys [in charge] died and no one replaced them," she speculates.

When I visited Forest Hill on Tuesday, May 23, I planned to look for the flags, as well as snap some photos of preparations for Memorial Day: I had no plans to talk to people, but things changed.

But let's back up for a minute. As I've learned from interviewing momument makers, preparations for Memorial Day begin in Spring. Wisconsin weather hinders installation of gravemarkers during the winter months, so gravestones must be kept in storage until freezing temperature abate. Then the rush season arrives, as momument companies hurry to install all the gravestones that have been accumulating for many months in time for Memorial Day weekend.

Installation of the backlog of gravestones usually begins in mid-April, says Lange -- "as soon as we can flag [the locations] and it's not wet."

Sometime during the months of March and April, cemetery staff begin removing decorations from all graves "in order to tackle out biannual cleanups." Since there always seems to be a staff shortage, families are encourage to remove decorations themselves.

Two weeks ago, when I visited Forest Hill, the grass was high and dandelions were threatening a takeover, This week, it was clear that that, unlike last year, there were plenty of Park Department employees hard at work to make certain the cemetery would be decked out in its best bib and tucker for the Memorial Day weekend, when, if there's nice weather, Lange says thousands of people will visit.

Tuesday afternoon, I entered Forest Hill via a path near Glenway Golf Course. I was going to take a solitary walk up to visit family graves in Section 35 (the Veterans Section), where I expected to see flags. Then, I planned to walk around to see how many other sections were sporting flags, and see what types of plantings and other decorations were adorning grave sites.

What I soon discovered was that Parks Department employees weren't the only people getting ready for Memorial Day. There were a sizeable number of people at Forest Hill decorating, planting, and watering family gravesites. I didn't want to play pesky paparazzi and invade their privacy by using my zoom, so I summoned some courage to initiate some conversations ask people for permission to photograph them.

Mr. Guernsey was decorating his wife's grave with artifical flowers, which he expects to survive for the summer. Forest Hill asks families to remove decorations in September or October in preparation for its other biannual cleanup. Mr. Guernsey grew up in Platteville and attended university there, but moved to Madison in the early 1950s. There wasn't a direct Central connection here, but there was a bit of one. His home is in the same neighborhood as the one Mr. Colucci lived in when he taught at Madison Central High School.

Once Mary Ann Coffman and I started talking, it was difficult to stop because, as is often the case with Madison natives of a certain age, we soon discovered we had a lot in common -- and lots of Central conenctions. Mary Ann's mother, Marie, graduated from Central and so did other relatives. Mary Ann graduated from West, as did her partner -- but they didn't get together as a couple until their 40th class reunion. His father graduated from Madison High School (Central's name until East was built) in 1917.

Mary Ann also told me about "dog cards," a subject to which we shall return in a later post. And since we didn't have time to talk all afternoon, in part because she had 10 family graves to attend to, I'm planning to talk to her when again, when I can take notes -- and then she'll be the subject of another post.

Alice Benn was planting flowers near some family graves and she'd come well-prepared for this task. In addition to flowers, she'd brought tools, gardening gloves, paper towels, and extra soil. She graduated from Madison East in 1952, but we couldn't establish any Central connections. However, she told me some wonderful stories she'd heard from her grandfather about what Madison was like back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

1 comment:

D Strand said...

"bib and tucker" and "pesky paparazzi" are ones for the books. I'll dazzle my friends with them!! I hope that Mr. Guernsey, Mary Ann Coffman, and Alice Benn appreciate your making them blog celebrities!!