Lisa Cooper sat cross-legged in front of her father’s grave at Mount Olivet Cemetery in the Town of Tonawanda. She used gardening scissors to clip the grass and weeds around the edges of the stone to make its 49-year-old inscription visible:
George E. Cooper, Jr.
World War II
Jan 5 1925 - July 28 1965
Cooper’s father died when she was 11. The 62-year-old woman still visits him every week, bringing him flowers and cleaning the stone.
Sometimes she “chats” with him.
It’s usually quiet at Mount Olivet, Cooper said. But on Saturday, hundreds of visitors crowded the grounds for the beginning of Memorial Day weekend, one of the busiest times of the year for cemeteries.
“Families take a lot of pride in taking care of graves,” said Carmen Colao, diocesan director of Catholic Cemeteries of Buffalo, which include Mount Olivet and Holy Cross.
Memorial Day weekend is one of the prime times for families to visit cemeteries where they plant flowers, trim away the weeds from gravestones, straighten flags and pay their respects. It’s also a time when families leave handwritten messages, tell stories about a father who was fastidiously clean, recall family vacations and say silent prayers.
On this weekend, cemeteries plan special programs, often veteran-centered.
Monsignor Francis Weldgen celebrated Mass at Mount Olivet Saturday morning, and dozens of people attended.
“Live this life with passion,” Weldgen said during the ceremony as the flags of the five branches of the U.S. Armed Forces and the United States fluttered at half-staff in front of him. “Be grateful that you’re indeed somewhat paralyzed by grief.”
Other Catholic cemeteries throughout the region also celebrated Mass on Saturday, and collectively they attracted roughly 1,500 people, Colao said. It’s likely that more than 4,000 people will visit the city’s Catholic cemeteries during Memorial weekend, he said.
Among those at the Mount Olivet Mass was Benjamin Majewski, a 10-year-old Boy Scout who’s part of Troop 58 from St. Christopher’s Parish in Tonawanda.
During the ceremony, Benjamin stood tall and straight. The boy wore no jacket and shivered on the cool spring morning. But Benjamin said he wasn’t cold.
As people trickled in, Benjamin handed them bracelets printed with the American flag.
Three bells marked the end of Mass. The flags were raised and a group of veterans fired a 21-gun salute. As one of the veterans played taps, Benjamin got the chance to hold the man’s rifle.
“I feel like it’s been an honor being here and holding the guy’s rifle and standing next to them,” Benjamin said after picking up the shell casings that scattered on the grass when the rifles were fired.
Lt. Col. John Kasmer, one of the veterans who performed the salute, was a Boy Scout when he was about 14 years old. He’s now 86. Kasmer said the Boy Scout’s participation in the Memorial Day ceremony was “terrific.”
“It shows these kids have some knowledge about patriotism and what it’s all about,” said Kasmer, who served in the Korean War as part of the 101st Airborne Division.
“Without these guys right here, we’d be lost,” he said.
Some people, like Charlie Gramaglia, skipped Mass, but still stopped by the cemetery to pay tribute to their loved ones. The man brought magenta geraniums for his parents, Joseph and Louise Gramaglia, who are buried next to each other.
Charlie Gramaglia’s father was deployed to England during World War II for two years. He died in 1973 at age 57 when Gramaglia was 17.
“He didn’t live very long,” Gramaglia said. “He worked, raised the family, and then he got cancer.”
Louise Gramaglia started the tradition in her family of visiting her husband and tending to the grave every Memorial Day, and she always brought along her children. When she died, Charlie Gramaglia and his siblings continued the tradition.
Sometimes the siblings come together. Sometimes it’s only Charlie. But somebody always cleans and puts flowers on Joseph and Louise Gramaglia’s graves on Memorial Day.
Visitors like Eleanor Krzystek, 86, can’t tend to the graves themselves. Krzystek stops by during Memorial Day with her children to see her mom and her husband, and during the rest of the year she drives by and honks.
Krzystek, who now uses a wheelchair, can’t move around as much as she used to, so that’s her way to say hello to her loved ones without leaving the car.
“It’s been a good life,” she said. “All the bad things that happened, I can write this many years later how much good came from them.”
Memorial Day weekend is for cemeteries what the day before or after Christmas is for the retail stores, said Joe Dispenza, president of Forest Lawn Cemetery. The cemetery doesn’t have an official count of the number of people who visit during the three-day commemoration, but Dispenza estimates that at least 3,500 people will come to the events Forest Lawn has planned for this weekend.
On Saturday, however, a few people wandered around the Forest Lawn graves, straightened flags and tidied stones.
At about noon, Lynn Crumpler walked to her car with a towel and a bottle of household cleaner in hand after wiping her dad’s grave. He liked everything to be clean and orderly, she said.
“It makes me feel better and I know it makes him feel better,” Crumpler said.
Crumpler, who lives in Rochester, was at Forest Lawn with her cousin Donette Calhoun. Both women’s fathers had known each other since childhood, and they married sisters.
The two families shared countless vacations together in Florida, Georgia and Texas.
When the two clans were on the road, the women’s fathers, Theotis Thedford and David Calhoun Sr., advised their wives not to drive. They feared the two cars would get separated and lost from each other, Crumpler said.
“And it happened every time,” Donnette Calhoun recalled.
For the women, family is key.
Peter and Ken Bartolotta, who were visiting their parents at Holy Cross cemetery in Lackawanna, had a similar opinion.
“Family is a very important thing and in today’s culture people are losing that,” Peter Bartolotta said. “Just look who’s here – it’s all old people.”
But there might be hope. During his 25 years at Forest Lawn, Dispenza has seen an increasing amount of children visiting the cemetery.
“We’ve come back to some basic human needs,” Dispenza said. “To remember and be remembered is a basic human need.”
Going to cemeteries can no doubt bring sadness or nostalgia, Dispenza said. But still, he considers it necessary.
“That fleeting moment of melancholy raises us up as people who respect their dead as much as their living – and that makes this country great,” he said.