This is an abbreviated version of an article that originally appeared in our October 2017 issue of American Cemetery & Cremation.
By Steve Cronin
Every veteran’s family gets a flag commemorating their loved one’s service to their country at the end of a funeral ceremony.
And while these flags are initially treasured, time and the passing of other family members often break the emotional bonds such flags possess.
This was a problem that Heather Leigh, general manager at Greenhaven Memorial Gardens & Life Tribute Center, set out to find a solution for.
“We know that through the generations, the connection with the flag and the next of kin diminishes over time. So I started thinking ‘What is it we can do?’” she said.
Greenhaven is located in Elgin, South Carolina, which is about 40 miles from Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter and McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Hopkins. Many Elgin residents have ties to the military, and patriotism runs high in the area.
Leigh came up with The Heroes Burial Flag and Memorial Program, which allows families to pay to fly their flags on days of their choice on a special flagpole at the front of the cemetery. Greenhaven provides a sign with information about the person being honored and retires the flag during a ceremony once it becomes too tattered for display.
“I always wanted to do something to honor our public servants and military personnel. I thought this was a way to do that and provide families with the opportunity to do something respectful with their flag,” Leigh said.
The Heroes program also helps the 30-plus acre cemetery, which was established in 1992 and does about 30 interments per year, build ties with its community while also generating revenue.
The genesis of the program was a result of Leigh’s trying to figure out the solution to another problem at her facility.
The cemetery had a single, small flagpole, not really suited for larger flags or the wear it was subjected to.
“It was just a poor little residential pole that was getting pulverized,” she said. “It took a beating. I was trying to figure out how I could best fix this situation, and I was thinking about this flag program, and I kept mulling it over.”
While contemplating what to do with the burial flags and coming up with an idea for the Heroes program, Leigh reached out to other cemeteries “to figure out the absolute coolest way to do this.”
“I was surprised no one else had thought of this,” she said.
While many cemeteries will accept families’ burial flags, those flags are usually retired and are not flown. If the flag is flown, families often don’t know when or where in the cemetery it is being used, Leigh said.
“This program will bring all that together. You will know when your flag is flown, and we will let people know whose flag it is. Then we will let the family know the flag will be retired on such and such a date so they can attend the service,” she said. “It really is the full circle for the flag.”
The plan really started to come together when the Chapter 1076 of the Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Society agreed to donate a 30-foot commercial-grade aluminum flagpole to the cemetery.
The pole was installed early this summer near Greenhaven’s main entrance, which fronts the highway leading to Columbia.
The Heroes program costs families about $34 per month, or approximately $400 for a year. Families can choose up to five days per year and receive a letter of appreciation from the cemetery.
Families can pick which days the flag flies on a first-come, first-served basis. Leigh, however, has designated several “blackout dates,” important holidays on which no family flags will be flown.
“We don’t want people arguing or getting into bidding wars,” she said. “I thought if we just eliminated some dates – like Pearl Harbor day, 9/11 and Christmas – it would be better than people coming in and being disappointed,” she said. The flags fly only during the day and are not flown during inclement weather.
Leigh envisions people requesting flags be flown on birthdays, anniversaries or other dates that are significant to their family or deceased loved one, such as the date of their military separation.
In addition to the burial flag, Greenhaven will also fly the branch of service flag requested by families. The 4-foot by 6-foot sign by the pole will display the name of the person the flag is honoring, their branch of service, birth and death dates and a message from the family.
The Heroes program is also open to the families of law enforcement and emergency service personnel. Greenhaven is located close to Fort Jackson National Cemetery in Columbia, so Leigh made the decision to open the program to all families and not just limit it to the families of the approximately 500 people buried in Greenhaven.
“It’s irrelevant if you purchase something from us – of course I would love you to, but ultimately this is to continue to honor the individual who provided for our freedom and to encourage the community and let them know there is something that they can do with that flag,” she said.
When flags are submitted to the program, they are tagged with the family’s name and the dates requested for flying. Families can say if they want the flag to be retired or returned after it is flown. The ashes of retired flags will be buried near the flagpole.
The Heroes program started in August, and Leigh already had three families signed up before the first flag even flew. A church recently contacted her because it has two flags that were donated several years ago and it did not know what to do with them. She expects demand to increase as people drive by and notice the flagpole and sign. Burial flags are 5-foot by 9-foot, significantly larger than the standard 4-foot by 6-foot flag the cemetery normally flies.
Currently, the flagpole donated by WoodmenLife is the only pole in the cemetery. That, however, could change if the public supports the Heroes program.
“Will we add additional flagpoles? I hope to have that problem,” Leigh said.
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