Marietta National Cemetery is without a flag at every headstone Saturday, May 23, 2020. Brad Quinlin, the cemetery’s volunteer historian, said freed slaves placed flower petals on headstones in the cemetery in 1868 to honor the Union soldiers who fought for their freedom, and flags have been placed at each grave site on the grounds since 1869, a Memorial Day or Decoration Day tradition that was put on hiatus this year. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: Jenni Girtman
Photo: Jenni Girtman

Amid the pandemic, a different remembrance this Memorial Day weekend

On the Saturday of a normal Memorial Day weekend, local Boy Scouts would place small American flags alongside the 19,000-plus gravestones at the Marietta National Cemetery. Mourners would file onto the grounds — one car after another — to pay respects to loved ones, former comrades or heroes they never met.

But this Saturday, the scouts stayed home. A few mourners were scattered about the grounds placing flowers or small flags beside the white marble headstones, but there were no lines waiting to enter. And the rolling green hills of this ancient cemetery were missing the gentle sway of thousands of tiny flags for the first time in more than a century, the cemetery’s volunteer historian said.

Such is life in a country still gripped by pandemic.

Historian Brad Quinlin, who normally is giving group tours of the Marietta National Cemetery during Memorial Day weekend, is out placing a few flags and visiting the grounds Saturday, May 23, 2020. Quinlin said freed slaves placed flower petals on headstones in the cemetery in 1868 to honor the Union soldiers who fought for their freedom, and flags have been placed at each grave site on the grounds since 1869, a Memorial Day or Decoration Day tradition that was put on hiatus this year. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“I’m lost,” said Brad Quinlin, a volunteer historian at the cemetery for 32 years. Quinlan said on a typical Memorial Day weekend, he’d give a half-dozen tours to small groups. But to help prevent potential spread of COVID-19, Quinlin was forced to halt his tours.

» PHOTOS: Memorial Day weekend tradition on hold and remembered 

The grounds of the cemetery are open, but to limit the potential for crowds, the annual Memorial Day ceremony will be replaced by a private wreath laying not open to the public.

Beaches along the Florida and Georgia coasts were hopping Saturday, as were state parks and lakes. In Milton and Tucker, the cities opened pools with new social distancing rules.

Campfires and grills blazed from Toccoa to Thomasville as Georgians sick of cabin fever explored the outdoors.

Daniel Creager, of Marietta, puts up American flags outside a condo building on Washington Avenue near the Marietta National Cemetery on Saturday, May 23, 2020. The coronavirus halted many Memorial Day weekend ceremonies and traditions, including the annual day of service by members of the Boy Scouts of putting flags at each grave stone in the cemetery. J. SCOTT TRUBEY/STRUBEY@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Along Washington Avenue in Marietta, Daniel Creager and his wife Inge planted more than a dozen American flags outside their condo building overlooking the cemetery. Residents of the building and business owners on the ground floor pitched in to buy the flags a few years ago.

Creager, who said a cousin was killed in service in Vietnam, said the condo residents raise the flags for all patriotic holidays.

This year will be difficult, he said. The couple normally gather with their grandchildren to celebrate the holiday weekend.

“We have to see our grandchildren virtually rather than physically and when we have seen them on a couple of occasions physically, we have to keep our distance,” Creager said. “They’ve learned about air hugs.

“We’ll see them. On the computer screen. But we’ll make it,” he said.

‘We’ll put out our flag’

Andersonville National Historic Site on Monday will stream online the playing of taps at its cemetery. The national cemetery in Canton also will hold a private wreath-laying ceremony and a moment of silence.

The Veterans Affairs Department is barring groups from placing flags at its cemeteries, a years-long Memorial Day tradition for Boy Scouts at the VA’s cemetery in Marietta.

A spokesman for the VA’s National Cemetery Administration said people are welcome to visit the agency’s cemeteries Memorial Day weekend and “place individual flags on graves to honor friends and family. We ask that all visitors adhere to CDC, state and local health, safety, and travel guidelines.”

On the grounds of the Marietta cemetery, Quinlin said he came Saturday to place flags and take pictures at grave sites of fallen service members whose families he’s gotten to know over the years.

He also placed a flag at the grave of Emma Stephenson, a former slave who became a nurse who cared for Union soldiers during the Civil War. She died in Marietta in 1864 of disease, Quinlin said.

Marietta National Cemetery is without a flag at every headstone Saturday, May 23, 2020. Brad Quinlin, the cemetery’s volunteer historian, said freed slaves placed flower petals on headstones in the cemetery in 1868 to honor the Union soldiers who fought for their freedom, and flags have been placed at each grave site on the grounds since 1869, a Memorial Day or Decoration Day tradition that was put on hiatus this year. (Jenni Girtman for Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“I’ve been involved in the flag placements and the Memorial Day events here for more than 27 years,” he said. “This is the first time no flags. This is the first time since 1869 that there’s not a flag on every grave.”

On Sunday, Quinlin said he’d drive to Andersonville to place a flag at the grave of his father, a combat veteran of World War II.

Kate Walters and her husband George came to the Marietta cemetery on Saturday out of a sense of patriotism.

The Walters have attended several Memorial Day ceremonies at the cemetery before, but not this year.

“We’ll put out our flag,” she said.

Her husband, said they’ll hold their own remembrances of fallen relatives and friends.

“I remember them,” George Walters said. “Just because we don’t have (the ceremonies), doesn’t mean we don’t remember them.”

Staff writer Jeremy Redmon contributed to this report. 

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