This blog post is focused on a different, often times overlooked, and rarely discussed form of memoriam – the grave stake.
You’ve seen them there – sporadically placed next to graves to honor members of fraternal organizations or soldiers who were deployed during a specific war or military action. Some notate simply that that grave belongs to a veteran. They can be very elaborate with exceptional detail, containing a multitude of information, or they may be very plain. Some of these ground stakes are capable of holding small flags and others are not. While you may find similar ground stakes in multiple cemeteries throughout the country, they are not uniform. Depending upon how those ground stakes ended up in that cemetery next to that grave will dictate what it looks like and what information it contains.
But wait – how do those ground stakes wind up next to a grave? Every veteran just gets one, right? Nope. Like any material object, those little markers aren’t free, and somebody is paying for them. Like most cemetery practices, people generally don’t go around wondering about it. So, how do those little ground stakes get there? The answer is as simple as any response to a question asked about symbolism in the cemetery – it depends.
Many of the older markers were placed by the organization it represents – the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the American Legion, etc. For those markers placed for more recent conflicts such as WWI, WWII or beyond, a local organization is probably responsible, most notably the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). It’s possible the funeral home who handled the service ordered the marker for the veteran. Or it may have been a family member. Or it could have been the cemetery. Or it may have been the City Clerk’s office. It really, truly, just depends.
Today you can purchase grave stakes very easily and they are quite affordable. Feel free to enter “Military Grave Marker” into any search engine and you will be provided with many options. But sometimes you will see these markers for sale in a way that, in my opinion, they never should be – second hand.
A recent visit to an antique shop is what prompted me to write this little blog post. I was meandering about a little shop in Sioux City, Iowa when I spotted a military ground stake that read “GAR”. Being the person I am, I made a verbal declaration to my companion that went something like “Oh – it just breaks my heart when I see these in second hand stores. Somebody took that off of a grave”. My comment was offensive to the shopkeeper, who informed me that it was “better to be here than melted down”, and I did agree with this statement. I would rather see it for sale than it be destroyed, but this gave me little solace.
I did not continue the conversation as my companion stepped in and ended my exchange with the shopkeeper, fearing a war of words. I will say I am generally a very polite person. I go out of my way to be courteous, however, I am also a person of opinion and in this circumstance I will voice it as politely as I can.
It does make me very sad to see these for sale, and regardless of how it happened, it was taken off of a grave. And not just any grave – the grave of a Union Soldier who fought in the Civil War. No matter how that came to be, whether it was stolen, the cemetery removed it, a weather event swept it away, or it randomly tumbled down a hill, it saddens me that it is no longer representing the soldier it was placed to honor. This establishment was within their legal right to sell that memorial trinket. Had they been asking a reasonable price I would have purchased it and done everything in my power to have it returned to its rightful place.
I’m curious to know fellow cemetery buffs, how do you feel when you see one of these memorials being sold second hand? Are you grateful it was saved from another fate, or do you automatically turn to anger that it is no longer representing its veteran? Regardless of your opinion, I encourage us all to be mindful to be kind to one another, even when our passions are afire.
And just like me, I bet if that GAR ground stake could talk it would tell you that it would rather be at the cemetery.