Saturday, November 28, 2015

Working in Tribute to Veterans

A First Veterans Day

Working in Tribute to Veterans


I saw them sitting on lawn chairs amid the headstones in the freshly hallowed ground of the country's newest national cemetery as I drove up on Wednesday.

Phyllis Kelly (left) and Peggy Staarman were visiting at the grave of their mother, Norma Holder, on what would have been her 89th birthday. As the spouse of a veteran, her cremated remains were buried in the national cemetery. Edward Holder, who is 90, served in the Pacific with the Army in World War II. One day he will be buried next to his wife where they will share a headstone.

It was my third visit this week, photographing the workers and volunteers who honor those who served their country as the Washington Crossing National Cemetery in Bucks County marks its first Veterans Day.

Every honorable discharged veteran is entitled to dignified military funeral honors - the folding and presentation of a burial flag and the sounding of Taps - as well as the right to burial in a national cemetery including the grave site, opening and closing of the grave, a headstone or marker, a Presidential Memorial Certificate, and perpetual care at no cost to the family. 

Click here for a gallery of all the photos. I also produced a short video.

Ceremonies are planned in the morning at the cemetery, including the intonation of bells at 11 a.m to commemorate the day, which is descended from Armistice Day, which was created in observance of the end of WWI -  on the 11th hour,  on the 11th day of the 11th month.

I first stopped by the cemetery during the summer (after seeing their Memorial Day ceremony on television) and was struck by all the activity. Not just on construction for the next phases of growth, but in keeping up with the six to eight interments they have each and every weekday.

But most impressive was the dedication of the workers and volunteers - many of them also veterans - honoring those who have served our country. It is clearly more than a job, it's a tribute.

In my photo travels,  I see many workers in jobs who intersect often with the general public - but for those individuals who interact with them, it's an uncommon experience. Think of the stereotypical government clerk at the window in front of a long line of taxpayers. Or the $6 million dollar baseball player who shows up at the stadium everyday and sees autograph seekers every single time. For him, it is a boring routine, just part of his job. But for the 6 year old fan, standing there in the front of the crowd as the player passes, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

It would be easy to see - and perfectly understandable - how someone who buries one hundred people a month might become jaded by the routine. But I was awed at how these guys - especially the VFW honor guard volunteers - treated each and every interment as if it were the only one they were working. As unique as each of the veterans and families involved.

Inquirer Staff Photographer
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About this blog

Tom Gralish is a general assignment photographer at The Inquirer, concentrating on local news and self-generated feature photos.

He has been at the paper since 1983, photographing everything from revolution in the Philippines to George W. Bush’s road to the White House to homeless people living on the street right outside his newspaper's front door. For his photo essay on Philadelphia’s homeless, he was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the Robert F. Kennedy Award.

His weekly newspaper column, "Scene Through the Lens," takes a look at Philadelphia's urban landscape.

Gralish, along with Inquirer colleague and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Michael Vitez, spent a year visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art to capture the stories and photos of "Rocky runners" who come from all over the world to climb the steps - just as Sylvester Stallone did in the Academy Award winning film, Rocky. Their book, Rocky Stories: Tales of Love, Hope and Happiness at America’s Most Famous Steps, was published in November 2006.

Reach Tom at

Tom Gralish Inquirer Staff Photographer
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