A volunteer surveys the ground at Lancaster Cemetery, carrying a big stick. Seeing a recess in the ground, the volunteer presses the stick into the dirt and listens.
That sound is significant — the stick hit a veterans’ grave that has sunk into the ground. Over the years, the weather causes the stones to sink into the ground, or even break.
That ping has become familiar to the volunteers of the organization, Red Rose Blue Star Moms, who have found and identified over 1,200 veterans headstones at the cemetery; all part of a project to restore, repair, identify and honor the graves of each U.S. veteran buried in the Lancaster Cemetery in Lancaster city.
The cemetery is the final resting place of local veterans who served in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War and later conflicts.
On Saturday at 1 p.m., Red Rose Blue Star Moms will host a scavenger hunt-style fundraiser at the Lancaster Cemetery, located at 205 E. Lemon St. Teams of two to five people can register online at lanc.news/RedRoseBlueStarMoms at $15 per person.
Teams will solve puzzles located throughout the cemetery, and will also learn the history of some of Lancaster County’s most famous residents buried there — including painter Charles Demuth and Civil War general John Fulton Reynolds.
The idea for the fundraiser came from Red Rose Blue Star Moms first vice president, Maurene Leary’s daughter-in-law, Ashley Leary. She designed 11 stations — each centered on 11 notable people buried in the cemetery. Each station is an escape-room adventure puzzle for the teams to solve. It isn’t a race, and the stations aren’t timed.
“Even if you know everything about the cemetery … it will still be challenging,” Leary said.
Funds from the event will be used to repair veteran headstones, in cases where the veterans have no family to request repair or replacement.
“It brings awareness of who is buried within Lancaster Cemetery,” said Lisa Colon, president of Red Rose Blue Star Moms. “People can see the work that we have before us, the work that we’ve done and why we need to raise funds.”
Honoring veterans’ gravesites
Identifying, marking, restoring and cleaning veterans’ gravesites at the cemetery is a challenging task.
As of June 7, Red Rose Blue Star Moms has found the graves of 1,262 veterans – 18 of whom served in the Revolutionary War. Blue Star Moms volunteers began the process in the summer of 2019. They combed through handwritten cemetery records written in bound leather books to identify grave.
From looking at a map and going out into the cemetery and finding the grave site, it can take the team a half-hour to find one headstone.
Making it more difficult, Colon said there are some veterans buried there that did not want recognition as a military member for personal reasons, so their headstone has no military medallion. In those cases, the volunteers need a descendant’s permission to proceed with the grave repair.
Through help with the Daughters of the American Revolution, volunteers are able to trace back the lineage of some individual. It’s a “genealogy adventure,” Leary said, to research the individual and find their descendants.
The group uses platforms like social media to find family members. Often, when they find the descendant, the family member doesn’t know a family member is buried there.
The next phase for this project is to recover and restore the stones of veterans.
For the stones to be repaired through the Veterans Administration (VA), a family member needs to initiate the request. Family members can request the discharge papers proving the person was in the military. In some cases, the cemetery can also give permission to repair the stone.
“Our goal is to be able to replace a stone if it’s been broken, but in order to do that, we need the family members to act on their members’ behalf,” Colon said.
“What’s rewarding is knowing that we have [over 1,200] veterans there, and now that we’ve been closer to finding out who they are, we place the marker and the flags. The next time we have a ceremony, or when someone comes through the cemetery, they see all these flags that weren’t there,” Colon said.
The organization hopes to sell 100 tickets for the scavenger hunt, which will raise enough money to lift 15 stones. Leary says that the long-term goal is for every veteran to have a stone.
“We have a duty as residents to remember those that have fought for our freedom,” Colon said.
Red Rose Blue Star Moms
Colon and four other mothers started the Lancaster chapter of Blue Star Mothers of America Inc. in late 2018. She found out about Blue Star Mothers of America Inc. when her son, Israeli, was stationed at an army base in Fort Riley, Kansas.
Originally formed in 1942, Blue Star Mothers of America Inc. provides support for mothers who have sons or daughters in active service in the U.S. Armed Forces. Families hang a banner, called a service flag, in their home’s window.
A blue star shows they have a military member currently serving in the military. Those displaying a gold star had a family member lose their life while in service.
Currently, membership in Blue Star Mothers of America is open to mothers, stepmothers, grandmothers, foster mothers and female legal guardians who have children serving in the military, guard or reserves, or children who are veterans.
The mission for Red Rose Blue Star Moms, Colon said, is to offer help and a support system to military families, veterans and the military members themselves.
“That help can be anything from sending care packages out, to sending Valentine cards; like Valentine’s for Vets,” Colon said.
During this process, Leary notes there is a lot of work left to be done to recognize and honor all of the veterans who are buried in the cemetery. The Red Rose Blue Star Moms presented a stone on June 13 in remembrance and honor of all of those who served the United States. That stone was donated by Weaver Memorials.
The group’s work brings to mind the old military adage, “You’re never forgotten.”
“It really should be ‘None left behind, and none forgotten,’” Colon said.