Today, tiny American flags flutter from each headstone in the Chattanooga National Cemetery, placed over the weekend by Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts and other volunteers. A Memorial Day service will be held this morning at 11. Jim Ogden will lead a torchlight history tour tonight.
The 11 men who do the burials at the historic cemetery, every one a military veteran, see every working day as if it is Memorial Day or Veterans Day.
“We do a few more things like the big flags and the little flags, but it is basically the same thing every day,” says cemetery worker Tito Mineno, an Army veteran who served in Desert Storm.
“We take care of our own,” he says. “We constantly make sure the veterans are taken care of, the cemetery is taken care of. A lot of people are proud of what goes on here. I’ll keep taking pride in it, even after I retire, which, hopefully, will be a long time.”
The cemetery was officially named in 1867 but started in 1863 with thousands of Civil War dead, many of them unknown. The number of burials at the Chattanooga National Cemetery will reach 51,000 by the end of the year, with an annual average of 1,200 burials these days.
One day, about a week before the Memorial Day, the crew handles six burials. They work quickly and efficiently, on a tight schedule, but respectfully. Machines are used, but the graves are finished by hand. Mineno operates a backhoe to lower the vault lid into place and fill the grave with dirt. After putting the vehicle back on a trailer, he helps other crew members smooth the layer of topsoil. Then he and the other crew members move to another spot in the cemetery for their next job.
Mineno has a more personal connection to the Chattanooga National Cemetery. His grandfather and mother-in-law are buried there, as well as the executive officer he served with during Desert Storm. To him, it is another reason to do the job well, and correctly.
“We just carry on, and show the utmost respect.”
John Rawlston is a staff photographer with the Chattanooga Times Free Press, where he has worked since the merger of Chattanooga’s two daily newspapers in 1999. He worked as a staff photographer for the Chattanooga News-Free Press (later the Chattanooga Free Press) starting in 1976. Prior to that, he worked for a year as a sportswriter for the Cleveland Daily Banner in Cleveland, Tenn. John graduated from Soddy Daisy High School in 1971. He graduated ...