By Krystin Gollihue
In Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the Washington Crossing National Cemetery, a cemetery dedicated to military veterans, their spouses, and dependent children, operated by the National Cemetery Administration of the Department of Veterans Affairs, stretches across 205 acres. It has space for a little over 250,000 sets of remains. The cemetery is supported in part by the Guardians of the National Cemetery, a group of volunteers who conduct recruitment and fundraising efforts to support supplementary programs, beautification and memorial programs, and suggestions for the design and construction of memorials and monuments.
The Guardians of the National Cemetery was formed in 2007 to generate public interest and to lobby for the approval of a veterans’ cemetery in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In 2008, ground was broken, the land was cleared and prepped, and the cemetery opened in January of 2010, where 7 veterans were interred on the first day. The cemetery currently houses over 14,500 occupied grave sites and/or columbarium niches.
The Guardians currently have 300 dedicated members working to honor the veterans interred at the National Washington Crossing Cemetery in Bucks County. Among them are 65 members of the Washington Crossing Honor Guard, who are honorably discharged service members trained in the rendering of military funeral honors. They spend 5 days a week at the cemetery rendering funeral honors for up to 10 burials per day. Honors are rendered each day by a different team of 7 riflemen for the rifle volley, a live bugler, a team leader, and a member who will hold the branch flag of the deceased.
In addition to rendering honors for deceased veterans, the Guardians also serve in beautification efforts for the cemetery, with an immediate goal of working towards establishing Shrine status. In cooperation with the National Cemetery Administration, they have helped build an Avenue of Flags along the main road, with twenty-foot tall removable flag poles to carry burial flags. They sponsor annual Memorial and Veteran’s Day events each year with between 500 and 700 attendees and host a variety of visitors for these events, such as a high school choir from Tennessee who asked to assist in the 2019 Memorial Day event.
In almost 10 years of service, the Guardians have never missed a mission, something they’re very proud of. Dedication is at the heart of what the Guardians aim to accomplish at the Washington Crossing National Cemetery. The oldest member is 94, their youngest is 66, and most are retired. “Less than 1% of Americans serve in the military,” says Robert Craven, President of the Guardians. “For people that are 75 years old to stand out in the cold winter and heat of summer, there’s a reason for that. Our volunteers are dedicated. That’s why we do it. It shows the general public that we care about our brothers and sisters who we may never know, but they’re ours because they served.”
What the Guardians are able to do for the families of veterans has special significance. Because of budget cuts, branches of the military service no longer have the ability to send a full funeral honors team to every veteran’s funeral. “We are there to augment the service branches,” says Mr. Craven, “and in the event they don’t show up, we’re prepared to do the entire funeral. We don’t have much spit and polish, but we have dedication; we want to be there.” Families will often donate their loved one’s service branch flag back to the cemetery administration to populate the Avenue of Flags.
The Guardians also hold an unattended service at the last Thursdays of the month. Everyone that was interred for that month who didn’t have a presence at the funeral is recognized individually by name, rank, and branch of service. In recent years, attendance at these services has reached up to 100 people, even in the winter. Regardless of whether families and friends are able to attend, someone is always present to honor the service of each veteran.
Mr. Craven says that the success of the Guardians has everything to do with the dedicated community of volunteers that wants to be involved. While many hear the “Guardians” and think immediately of the Honor Guard, the organization has a unique problem in that only honorably discharged veterans can serve in the rendering of military funeral honors. Despite this, people still want to be involved, and the key is in understanding the skills and desires of individual volunteers. Mr. Craven remembers one instance in which a stay-at-home mother asked to volunteer: “She was a former photographer, so what can she do? She can document. Someone who works in a nursery can handle landscaping at the cemetery. People who can’t get out of the house can handle stuffing envelopes. Practicing attorneys can help with legal status.
Such coordination not only takes thinking outside the box; it involves understanding what brings each person to their sense of dedication to the cemetery. What matters to individuals about this cause? What can those individuals do with the skills, histories, and experiences they bring with them? And how does it meet up with the needs of the organization as well as the relationships they’ve built with the cemetery? As the Guardians of the National Cemetery have managed a body of 300 volunteers, they’ve understood it as a community, one where every individual can make a difference.
Mr. Craven is currently President of the Guardians of the National Cemetery and has been a member of the organization for over 10 years. His additional volunteer work includes being a mentor in the Travis Manion Foundation’s Character Does Matter program, a District Deputy Commander with the American Legion in Pennsylvania, and has served as a peer mentor with the TAPS organization. He is a USAF veteran (1967-71). He has been married to his wife Linda for over 47 years and they are Gold Star parents. They have 2 married daughters and 6 grandchildren.
Krystin Gollihue is an Assistant Editor for Philanthropy Journal. She received her PhD in Communication, Rhetoric & Digital Media at NC State University. Her research looks at technology, farms, and resilience in the rural South.