Before it was Memorial Day, family and friends of U.S. veterans called it Decoration Day, a time to grace the graves of those who served in the military with flowers, flags and mementos of love and respect.
The name may have changed, but the tradition is very much alive. But those in Orange County who want to visit a veteran's grave in a national cemetery must travel to Riverside, San Diego or Los Angeles counties.
While there are many Memorial Day services at regular cemeteries in Orange County, local veterans do not have their own official cemetery or even their own section in another burial ground.
“I just think it’s a travesty with all of the veterans in this county,” said Susan Sills, widow of David G. Sills, who was presiding justice of California's 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana.
David Sills, who was based at Camp Pendleton while a Marine captain in the early 1960s, died last summer at age 73. But, said his widow, he’s not buried close to his home in Irvine, where he lived and served 10 years on the City Council.
She and several community leaders who served in the military would like to see this changed.
Sills and others suggested a location in Irvine's Great Park because of its many acres and history as the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
“It would be a perfect place for a cemetery,” Sills said.
Irvine spokesman Craig Reem said “it’s a great thought” but there currently are no plans to include a cemetery in the Great Park’s development.
A Cemetery Within 75 Miles
The first national cemeteries were created during the Civil War, with the most famous being in Arlington, Virginia, near Washington, D.C.
The site was the home of Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Anne Randolph Custis, one of George Washington’s granddaughters. When the South seceded, the U.S. Army took over the property and used it as a military post to defend the nation's capitol.
It was at Arlington that the declaration was made designating May 30, 1868, as the first national Decoration Day.
Currently, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs maintains 128 national cemeteries throughout the country where veterans of the armed forces can be buried, if they choose.
The goal is to have a VA cemetery within 75 miles of the home of any veteran, said VA spokesman Chris Erbe. The busiest, according to Erbe, is Riverside National Cemetery, established in 1976 from portions of March Air Force Base. It handled 8,587 funerals last year.
The national cemetery in Los Angeles County beside the 405 Freeway near UCLA, is full, although plans are underway to add a 10,000-space niche for cremated remains. San Diego County, home to major Marine and Navy bases, has two national cemeteries, but one of those is close to capacity.
With space for 363,000 grave sites, Riverside isn’t expected to reach capacity until well after 2030, said Erbe.
Erbe said it might be possible for the county to persuade the VA to create a special cemetery, if it is paid for locally. That was done for the communities around the small Northern California town of Igo, west of Redding. Money to support the cemetery comes from the communities it serves.
There is currently no such proposal on the table in Orange County. Superior Court Judge Frank Bresino, who served in Vietnam during his eight years in the Marine Corps, would like to see that changed.
"There is a need [in Orange County.] It’s acute," Bresino said. "I think Orange County has the space and land to provide for that need.”
Support for something local also comes from federal judge David O. Carter, a Marine who was wounded at the battle of Khe Sanh during the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive in 1968.
Orange County has a “patriotic history,” he said in a telephone call from Algeria, where he was helping train local leaders to combat international patent violations.
“We’ve sent brothers and sisters into conflict, and many did not return,” he said of himself and fellow veterans in Orange County. “[But] most of us came back from Vietnam or another conflict and fell in love with the county and stayed here.”
Retired Marine Brig. Gen. Frank Quinlan, a Newport Beach attorney who also was an FBI special agent, joked, “I’m getting old too, so it’s an issue.” If local political leaders were supportive, he said, the old El Toro base, where he once flew helicopters, would be a possible cemetery site.
When David Sills died last year, Susan Sills divided his ashes between Peoria, Ill., where he was born, and Marblehead, Mass., an area he loved to visit.
“I’ve held some back in hopes that some day I can bury him where he should be,” she said, “either in Irvine or a veterans’ cemetery in Orange County.”