Long before thousands flow through the gates at Fort Snelling National Cemetery on Memorial Day, Navy veteran Mark Linafelter and dozens of others are there five days a week, carefully tending the grounds where those who served their country are laid to rest.
“It’s duty,” Linafelter said Thursday, moments before he fired up a power washer. With knee-high rubber boots on his feet and an ear-protection headset over his hat, he moved the water wand across the headstone, erasing the grime that had darkened the white marble. For eight hours a day, Linafelter moves down the rows of perfectly aligned headstones, washing away tree sap, bird droppings and dirt.
On Thursday, he paused to watch two men place a flag alongside a headstone and salute.
“I don’t think they were family,” Linafelter said. “It’s brotherhood.”
It’s why he works diligently on each headstone. “It’s an honor,” he said. “It’s a bond of service. We joke with one another about our branch of service being better, but we are one.”
Like Linafelter, most members of the cemetery’s 50-member crew are veterans. Many have family members and friends buried there, so caring for the grounds is personal, said cemetery director John Knapp, a Marine vet.
Their work and commitment are year-round. But their pace is frenetic in the week before the three-day Memorial Day weekend, when more than 25,000 cars will pass through the main gate. Three thousand to 5,000 people, along with many dignitaries, will attend Monday’s ceremony.
A stage will be erected, a sound system installed, 1,500 chairs set up, and 475 flags strung up along the cemetery avenues and along a berm.
Army veteran Warren Wurtz and his crew had 27 more flags to send up poles Thursday morning. He nodded, almost in reverence, at those already hoisted. Most once draped the coffin of a military man or woman, he said.
“Each person here is important — from generals to privates. We don’t distinguish between the two. They’re all the same,” said Wurtz, who has worked at the cemetery for about 15 years.
There’s definitely a rush to get “everything pristine,” before the Memorial Day crowds come through the gates, he said. “We try to get the grass as green as possible.”
Petunias and geraniums have been planted in front of the main gate, which is being painted. Sod is being laid on the last of the graves dug during the winter. And crews are making their way around the cemetery, mowing and trimming. Everything has to be straight and orderly, Wurtz said. In military terms it’s “Dress right, dress,” he said. “That’s important to those of us in the military.”
Wurtz pointed to the field of headstones — more than 160,000 mark the graves for nearly 220,000 people in the cemetery, the difference being that in some cases spouses are buried under one stone. Row after row, the markers are perfectly aligned. When winter’s freeze and thaw tilts them, crews use a plumb, tape measure and level to set them right.
Care ‘in perpetuity’
As workers focused on their tasks, the light-rail train sounded its horn nearby, a few visitors carrying bouquets wandered in search of familiar headstones and 25 more funerals were held.
Eleven of those services were with honors: At each, Memorial Rifle Squad volunteers stood at attention before three volleys from eight riflemen pierced the silence. A bugler stepped forward, and the mournful sound of taps brought peace again.
Taking a break from hauling dirt, Marine veteran Dean Randgaard said he expects to be buried at Fort Snelling. His dad, uncle, cousins and good friends are buried there, he said. Years ago, when his daughter stood at her grandfather’s grave, she made it clear she also wanted to be buried at Fort Snelling. Randgaard told her there were only two ways it could happen: Marry a serviceman or join the military. She joined the Air Force.
“One of the biggest benefits we get is the burial,” Randgaard said. “Graveside care is in perpetuity.”
No one is forgotten.
On Memorial Day, Joanne Malmstedt of Blaine will do her part to remember. Although she doesn’t work at the cemetery, she’ll be there at 5:45 a.m., placing flags along as many headstones as she can before the ceremony.
Last year she called the cemetery to find out if she could bring her three children to help crews place flags at each gravesite and was stunned to learn that the cemetery hadn’t placed flags at individual graves for 30 years.
Malmstedt took matters into her own hands, and along with 15 friends bought and placed 3,000 small flags at graves. This year, she raised $4,000, and she and her volunteers will place flags at 10,000 graves. Eventually, if she can raise $70,000, she’ll buy enough flags to mark each grave every Memorial Day.
“I come from a military family,” she said. Her father is a Vietnam War vet; her grandfather was a POW in a German concentration camp during World War II. Her great-grandfather, who is buried at Fort Snelling, served in World War I.
But mostly, Malmstedt wants to make sure no one is forgotten.
“There are so many sections of that cemetery that don’t get visitors anymore because they’re so old or that veteran’s family might live out of state or they’re physically unable to come to the cemetery,” Malmstedt. “This is something that I need to do.”