At Memorial Park Cemetery, visitors honor the fallen

Saturday, May 26, 2012 | 5:50 p.m. CDT; updated 8:14 p.m. CDT, Sunday, May 27, 2012
A flag flies over graves decorated for Memorial Day on Saturday morning at Memorial Park Cemetery.

COLUMBIA – Two men in black cut-off T-shirts pull their motorcycles onto the grass inside Memorial Park Cemetery and make their way through the headstones.

Long-time friends Matt Stewart and John Scott have been coming to the cemetery on Memorial Day weekend for almost 40 years — as long as they can remember.


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They've come to pay their respects to their grandfathers.

“My parents live in North Carolina now, and I know sometime this weekend, my mom’s going to ask me if I brought a flag to Grandpa. So I’d better do it,” Stewart said.

His grandfather was the toughest man he ever met, Stewart said.

Stewart and Scott joined about 50 others Saturday morning at Memorial Park Cemetery, who came to place flags and flowers on the plots of loved ones.

In preparation for the crowds, about 20 staff members have placed nearly 400 flags throughout the cemetery, mowed lawns and set up booths at which flowers will be sold throughout the holiday weekend.

One of them, Paul Hanson, replaced a vase to prepare for the crowds. Monday will mark the second Memorial Day he has worked at the cemetery, and this weekend he has already seen more people coming to visit the grave site.

All staff is on call this weekend, and it’s a very busy time, Hanson said.

The families visiting will see the Avenue of Flags, a series of flags lining the drive through the cemetery.

These casket flags are donated to the funeral home by the families of dead veterans. The flags are displayed every Memorial Day weekend to represent the veterans who have died.

Preparing the cemetery and putting up all of the flags requires more work from the park's staff, but it’s all worth it, general manager Justin O’Neal said.

“To see this is just amazing,” he said.

Mary Swearingen, 64, and Stephen Grant, 68, are the only people in their family who live in the area. They visit attend to six family graves.

Cars slowly move through the grounds, stopping occasionally at their respective plots. People exit vehicles with grocery sacks full of flowers and flags to decorate the graves of their loved ones.

Robert L. Smith, 84, comes to Memorial Park every year to pay respect to his son and wife. Smith is a veteran of the Korean War. He also goes to other cemeteries in the state during Memorial Day weekend to visit other family members' graves.

For more than 12 years, Bob Heibel Jr. and his wife, Dottie Heibel, have been coming to Memorial Park to decorate the headstones of their parents and his brother, Cpl. Dan Heibel, who was killed during the Vietnam War.

Visiting the graves of loved ones is "something you fit into a little later on as you get older," Bob Heibel said. "Younger kids don’t have much time for it, but I think they will. I think things will change for them."

The Avenue of Flags will be on display through Monday.  

Supervising editor is Ted Hart.

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