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On behalf of a grateful nation: Riverside Cemetery and Walter Martens & Sons Funeral Home celebrate their fifth annual Memorial Day Ceremony

by Victoria Shea

(Plain Press, June 2018)    The American Flag that draped the 2015 casket of Private First Class Clarence A. Nolan, Jr. of the United States Army, was silhouetted against a beautiful blue sky at Riverside Cemetery, as the fifth annual Honoring Those Who Protected Our Freedom Memorial Day Ceremony took place.

Started in 2014, the annual Memorial Day Ceremony allows the staff of Walter Martens & Sons Funeral Home to partner with Riverside Cemetery to hold the service. Licensed funeral director Walter Martens, Jr. said that the funeral home’s office manager, Victoria Shea, started it.

“Victoria had started the program after she heard about her cousin who was scheduled to go overseas with the Army,” Martens said. “When she approached me about it, she said that the idea came from her wondering what her family would do if something happened to him.”

With Martens blessing, she then reached out to Riverside Cemetery. The general manager of the cemetery, Greg Kapcar, readily agreed. Former general manager and board member William Halley said the staff of Walter Martens & Sons had brought back the tradition of the Memorial Day service-which the cemetery hadn’t seen in almost fifty years.

The first service, Martens said, was based on the funeral home’s Tree of Remembrance ceremony held every year during the holidays. Since then, the Memorial Day ceremony has become very much its own program.

“Every year we try something different until we find something that works. Our first year, the American flag was raised at the front of the cemetery, and then a procession was held to the William Halley Chapel where we read the names of the veterans we had held services for,” Martens said. “Now, everything is held outside by the flagpole, which allows everyone to enjoy the beautiful landscape of the cemetery.”

Martens said that the Memorial Day ceremony is also a way to have different communities of people interact with each other. For this year’s service, ministers included the Rev. John Manning, the former pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church on Lorain Avenue; Sister Margaret Taylor, Mother Superior and Congregational Leader for the Sisters of the Incarnate Word; the Rev. James Beight, pastor of the Abram Creek Baptist Church and former pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church; and the Rev. David Shinault, an associate of the Bethel Free Will Baptist Church on Fulton Road. Other groups who participated in the service included members of the Bishop O’Reilly General Assembly of Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus.

“We always tried to model our ceremony after the patriotism of the Fourth Degree Knights,” Martens said. “So once they started participating in the ceremony, it made it even more special. We thank them for their continued participation.”

The ceremony itself is broken into several different parts. The first part of the ceremony deals with the American Flag. With a color guard, made up of family members and employees of Martens’ staff, the flag is presented and raised to half-staff on the flagpole. For the last three years, the flag used has been the one that was presented to the wife of Clarence A. Nolan, Jr., the grandfather and father of most of the Martens Funeral Home office staff.

“It’s a great honor that on Memorial Day the funeral home chooses to use the flag that draped my father’s casket,” Pat Shea, the daughter of Mr Nolan said. “It helps make it feel like my dad is there with us.”

Following that, Martens said, is the reading of the folds of the American Flag, generally by the staff of Riverside Cemetery. “Many people don’t realize that for each fold, there is a meaning and purpose for it,” Martens said.

The next part of the ceremony deals with the symbols used to help remember the fallen. This year’s service included both a wreath as well as a Battlefield Cross.

As quoted in the ceremony program, “the latest version of the Battlefield Cross: rifle, helmet, boots and dog tags, have become the universal military symbol of loss, mourning and closure for those left behind.”

The last part of the ceremony, Martens said, deals with those that are being honored.

“The last part of the ceremony is always the hardest part. It’s when the girls in the office stand before everyone and read out into an eerie silence, the names of the men and women of the Armed Forces we’ve serviced in past years.” Martens said. “It’s when everyone there realizes that we’re all there for the same exact reason.”

At this year’s ceremony, 581 names were read. Martens said it was the most substantial amount of names read in the last five years. “The girls in the office read off all the names that have appeared in every single program since we’ve started,” said Martens.  “In addition to the names, the ranks at the time of discharge were also read if they were known.”

Following the reading of necrology, Taps is played. In years past, they were played by Trevor Halley, the grandson of William Halley. Since 2016, when the cemetery dedicated the Stadler Memorial Carillon, named in honor of the late Beverly Jane Stadler Harris, they have been played via the carillon.

“It’s hard not to tear up at the sound of Taps,” Martens said. “It is, as the program says, singularly beautiful.”

To close the program, licensed funeral director Joe Mosinski did his rendition of “I Am The Nation.” The reading is an emotional one that reminds all present the reasons why their loved ones went into the Armed Forces.

Martens says he is pleased every year with the work put in by Victoria and the office staff to ensure that the program takes place. “One of the widow’s of a friend of mine, Mary Ann Hartman, came up to me after this year’s service and told me what a beautiful service it was and how beautiful the cemetery was as well. It was her first time being there.” He says he hears comments like hers every year.

While the names read at the ceremony are the ones that his firm has serviced, every year they add names of those from the community who have attended the ceremony. Martens encourages all those who wish to contact the funeral home to be added to the mailing list and have their loved ones added to the necrology. All are always welcomed.

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