I'm not exactly sure why but lately I've been thinking a lot about final resting places. I suppose it might be because I probably spend more time than the average person does in one cemetery or another taking pictures or reading gravestones or it might be because I work in a job where death and dying are - unfortunately - par for the course. No matter the reason, I'm pretty positive that none of us shuffle off of this mortal coil alive and unless you've given some thought to what your final arrangements are going to be, you're not only at the whim of your family but are putting the burden of a lot of painful decisions on their shoulders at a time when - hopefully - they're too overcome by your loss to be thinking clearly. Or at least one hopes! Add on the fact that it's becoming very expensive to die these days and it just seems smarter to plan ahead.
Being the practical Virgo that I am and a person who likes to have plans in place if at all possible, I've been debating where my own final resting place might be and trying to be as realistic about it as possible. I'm pretty sure I'm never going to have my name chiseled on a stone as "the beloved wife of ..." pretty much anybody and I rather doubt my parents want me hanging around their cemetery plot either. Huge family plots like those I see at Yantic Cemetery are most definitely a thing of the past so I think I'm going to be pretty much on my own.
Somehow the topic came up during conversation on Wednesday morning when my good friend Rhonda and I were at breakfast and - wonderful friend that she is - she offered me a spot in their plot but I told her it would probably look pretty funny to read the inscription on her gravestone "Here lies George and his beloved wife Rhonda" and then have my name chiseled in underneath " ... and their friend Linda". It's really a sweet gesture and one that only a true friend would ever make but I think I've made up my mind as to where I'm going to have whatever's left of me after cremation buried and that's at the Connecticut State Veterans' Cemetery in Middletown. To that end, I took a drive up there on Thursday to check things out as I'd never been there before and I figured if I was going to fill out the paperwork to make it my final destination, I wanted to get a look at the lay of the land.
The cemetery is located on Bow Lane across from the grounds of Connecticut Valley Hospital (a place I've been known to dispatch ambulances to on occasion) which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Originally known as the General Hospital for Insane of the State of Connecticut, in 1874 its name was changed to the Connecticut Hospital for the Insane. By 1879 it was referred to as the Connecticut State Hospital and in 1961 the institution's name was officially changed to the Connecticut Valley Hospital.
On the list of the National Register of Historic Places since 1985, the hospital first opened its doors in 1868 and by 1896 was one of the largest institutions of its kind in the country. I didn't have the chance to prowl the grounds when I went up to the cemetery on Thursday but I daresay a return trip is in order as many of the original buildings are still there and I'd love to take a look at the architecture. I just need to remember that its still a very active and functioning mental health facility and act accordingly when taking pictures and such.
The interesting history of CVH aside, I haven't really been able to find much of anything about the Connecticut State Veterans' Cemetery on-line other than the fact that it's a VA Grant Funded Cemetery which means that the Veterans Administration provides grants in order to "establish, expand or improve veterans cemeteries that are owned and operated by a state." The administration, operation, and maintenance is still solely the responsibility of the State of Connecticut who is also responsible in ensuring that the cemetery "conforms to the standards and guidelines pertaining to site selection, planning, and construction prescribed by the VA." In other words, the VA oversees but the State of Connecticut carries out ... or at least that's my understanding.
Pulling up to the cemetery it's pretty easy to recognize that you're at a Veterans' Cemetery as you immediately see the distinctive white marble headstones just beyond the field-stone constructed gates. I found it rather interesting that the cemetery has a large iron gate that they close and lock at night but there's no fence around the cemetery itself. You obviously can't drive in after hours but should you want to wander in by foot there's really nothing to stop you except for hopefully some common sense and decency as well as the fact that there are State Police patrolling the grounds of CVH and chances are good they're keeping an eye on the cemetery, too.
When you first enter the cemetery, there are sections of graves to both sides of the roadway. From what I could tell the graves weren't laid out by year of death or anything else so it didn't appear that these were "older" sections. As a matter of fact, none of the sections looked particularly old so I'd be quite curious to find out when the cemetery was established. Unfortunately there didn't appear to be any maintenance personnel around for me to ask that of.
Following the road around to the right, pretty soon you come across an office and a very large field of grass directly in front of you that has hundreds of white stones arranged in row after row. They may not be aligned as neatly as those in Gettysburg National Cemetery or Antietam National Cemetery or Arlington National Cemetery but they gave me that same feeling of honor and respect that I've gotten from visiting any Veterans' Cemetery.
Gazing upon the uniform white stones is a good reminder of how many people have taken the oath to protect and serve our country even though this is only a small amount of men and women who served in the Armed Forces in the big picture of things. Certainly they didn't all die in battle either but they would have if called upon to take up arms and I think that's what counts. They were willing to die so that the rest of us could be free and I feel that providing them a final resting place is the least the state can do.
One of the things I liked about the Veterans' Cemetery is that there were lots of trees symmetrically planted alongside the roadway. I'm a big proponent of trees in cemeteries but don't ask me why - I just think they belong there!
Periodically, there were benches that were placed along the edges of the lawn so that one could sit and reflect if one were to so choose and I thought that was a nice touch. Cemeteries are definitely places of reflection and memories.
In addition to veterans who served at least 90 days of active duty and were released from the Armed Forces under honorable conditions, their spouses may also be buried here. Considering that spouses play such an important role in a veterans' life, I think it's great that they can be buried together and I saw a lot of stones that marked the graves of wives. I'd be willing to bet there was a husband or two of a veteran in there also, but I didn't see any during my visit. It's my understanding that the graves are not dug side-by-side but one on top of the other which makes sense as far as spacing goes.
While at the cemetery, I made sure to take the time to pay my respects and visit the grave of a former co-worker and friend of mine from American Ambulance. Mark was one of the very first EMTs that I met when I began my career at American and I spent two days with he and his partner as they showed me the ins and outs of what goes on out on the road so that I'd have a better idea as a dispatcher about the care and treatment of patients as well as what might go wrong and cause delays on transfers. It was a very enlightening experience, especially considering I had no clue about anything to do with an ambulance at all, and Mark taught me a lot of good stuff. I credit him with a lot of my success as a good ambulance dispatcher as I took a lot of his advice to heart and still use it eight years later.
Mark died way too young and most of us still aren't sure why either - he had a seizure one morning and never came out of it and that's pretty much all we know. He was very involved in the City of Norwich Little League and his passing was a great loss to them, too. He was just way too young ... way too young. When I arrived at the grave there was one small stone on top of Mark's headstone to show that someone had been there and before I left I placed another there even though I'm not Jewish. I've read that symbolically, leaving a small stone suggests the continuing presence of love and memory which are as strong and enduring as a rock so it seemed only appropriate to leave one.
While I was visiting Mark's grave one other person arrived at the cemetery and spent quite a bit of time at a grave not too far from where Mark's was. Even though there's a sign at the entrance to the cemetery that says they discourage plants and such being left at the graves, I noticed that there were quite a few graves that did have pots of flowers in front of them and my guess is that this woman was at the cemetery to tend to some flowers herself. There's no shade around the graves so any flowers left would tend to dry out pretty quickly if we actually had a longer period of time when it didn't rain at least once. Unlike town cemeteries, flags aren't put on the graves to mark those of veterans either being that everyone there is a veteran (or spouse of one) so if you want an American flag on a grave, you need to put one there yourself.
All in all I decided that I liked the cemetery and that there really were worse places that one could end up at when reaching the end of one's life so I've decided that I'm going to go ahead and submit the paperwork needed to reserve a spot for myself. I talked to my Mom about it and told her that it was one of the very few benefits that I had coming to me as a veteran (having served during a period of time when there were no conflicts or wars I pretty much get passed over for anything else) and that it would certainly make things easier on my children when my time came to have already taken care of the arrangements. There's no charge for the plot, no charge for the cremation, no charge for the opening or closing of the grave, and the headstone is provided by the Federal Government and installed by cemetery personnel at no cost. Additionally, perpetual care is supplied by the State of Connecticut so no one has to drive the hour or so up to Middletown to make sure the grass has been mowed.
Granted, I can't pick out a spot ahead of time as an exact gravesite isn't assigned until after a person dies but in the big picture of things, I don't think that's really going to matter as I know I'll be resting among fellow veterans no matter where in the cemetery I end up. And that will be a privilege and an honor.