Veterans cemeteries go virtual for Memorial Day services this year

Memorial Day traditions, like “flag-in” ceremonies in this 2015 file photo from Arlington National Cemetery, were still observed at veterans’ cemeteries this year, but with socially distanced gravesite visits and, in Arizona, with online observances. (Photo by Nick Wicksman/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Organizers said they worked hard to make sure Memorial Day ceremonies at Arizona veterans’ cemeteries this year stay true to tradition, with guest speakers, a moment of remembrance and the singing of the National Anthem.

Except that the audience for this year’s ceremony will not be graveside but will be watching online.

In a bow to COVID-19 health concerns, the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services will be going online with the annual Memorial Day ceremony and related events at the state’s three military cemeteries.

“We’re still trying to keep it as traditional as possible, but in a way that everyone can participate safely,” said Nicole Baker, assistant deputy director for public and intergovernmental affairs for the department.

The department operates three cemeteries, in Marana, Sierra Vista and Bellemont, and would normally stage Memorial Day ceremonies at each. But speakers for this year’s ceremony will be remote, and the virtual ceremony they put together will stream on the department’s YouTube and Facebook channels beginning at 9 a.m. Monday.

Some other changes are unavoidable. The tradition of “flag planting,” where volunteers gather to place a U.S. flag on every gravesite, will be done this year by cemetery staff, who will then post photos of each gravesite to Facebook.

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And while the ceremony is typically observed by a hushed crowd, participants this year will be encouraged to post emojis and live online comments, which should bring a different, more spirited energy to the proceedings, Baker said.

The cemetery will still be open for regular visitation, but Baker encourages people to visit throughout the weekend so they can avoid the crowds that normally occur on Memorial Day.

The National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona in Phoenix, which is operated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, has also canceled its in-person Memorial Day ceremony for this year. The cemetery will remain open for visitors, but they are being encouraged to keep their distance from one another.

Speakers lined up for the ceremony at the state-run cemeteries include Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services Director Wanda Wright, Arizona Veterans’ Service Advisory Commission Chairperson Peter Kloeber and Disabled American Veterans Department of Arizona Commander Glenn Hohman. Hohman has been involved in planning the service for the last six years, but this is his first time speaking at it.

“We just want to make sure everybody understands the gravity of Memorial Day and takes time in their own way to acknowledge the men and women who have died protecting the freedoms we enjoy every day,” he said.

Hohman, who served 21 years in the Army, was deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea as well as some stateside assignments.

“It’s about the ability to mourn the loss of my comrades and the people that I served with,” he said. “Remembering that freedom is not free is what will keep their memory alive.”

For Hohman, Memorial Day serves as a time to remember what freedom means to him.

“Freedom has a cost,” he said. “And that cost has names.”

Because of that, Baker said, the decision to move the ceremony online was not an easy one, but it was absolutely necessary.

“As unfortunate as the circumstance is, we’ll still be able to have that piece of camaraderie online,” Baker said.

News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Ellie Borst is an Arizona native who expects to graduate in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in political science. Borst is the managing editor for The State Press and will intern at The Arizona Republic in the fall.