It is a quiet place. It is a place of reverence, respect, and remembering.
There are people who have a soft spot in their heart for cemeteries. Growing up, I remember my grandparents and parents were always making sure we paid our respects to family members who had passed.
Gravesites were well maintained. Flowers and plants were placed around the markers all the time. When visiting the places where close family members were laid to rest, we often took the time to say a short silent prayer.
I thought my family was a little different from others in regard to their feelings about these hallowed grounds.
That was until I talked to other adults over the years.
One friend told me that she would take a bag lunch to the family cemetery and spend an extended period of time there.
When the Merced Cemetery Association asks for volunteers every Memorial Day weekend to help place crosses on graves, they are overwhelmed with people wanting to do something to help make our local cemetery look nice.
Merced County can claim some truly sacred ground in the over three-hundred acres that form the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery in Santa Nella.
If you haven’t been there, you should consider going. If you have been there, you will likely never forget the experience.
Two friends of my wife and I are buried there.
For well over a year, we had been meaning to take the ride out from our home in Merced to the Cemetery. It finally happened for me on a sunny late winter day.
From the north or south, signs on Interstate 5 let you know that the Cemetery is off the Santa Nella exit, and smaller signs take you from the exit ramp to the road that leads there.
You think twice when you see there are another three miles to go, but as you pass a massive solar panel array and come upon the grounds, you instantly realize these extra miles off the beaten path of I-5 is worth the effort.
The Administrative Office is the main structure on the property. Inside during business hours, a staff person can assist by telling you exactly where the grave you are looking for is located on the grounds.
But there’s much more going on at this Cemetery than the over thirty-thousand graves.
The highest point on the grounds is the observation point. From here, you can see the entire Cemetery with the added bonus of an incredible vista of the San Joaquin Valley.
The land for this final resting place was donated by a ranch company in 1989. Agricultural land and a solar farm surround the Cemetery footprint.
Closer to the Administration Building, there’s the Korean War Veterans Memorial. The circular stone tableau lists the names of twenty-five hundred soldiers: every soldier from California who served in the Korean War.
Like many of the memorials on the grounds, funds were raised by veterans groups, clubs, corporations, and individual donations.
Dividing the roadway heading to and from the Administration building is a line of trees. This line of sixty-five trees represents the United States Veterans World War II Memorial.
Each tree represents a submarine lost in action during World War II.
Across from the Administration Building, there’s a statue representing the Airborne Soldier. The brass base of the statue reminds the visitor of the “unsurpassed courage” of these soldiers.
I thought I’d spend ten minutes on the grounds. I would pay my respects to the two friends whose bodies are buried there and then head back on the road.
I stayed for about a half hour and promised myself to spend more time on a future visit.
Among the memorials at the Cemetery, there’s a piece of granite with the words of a poem that honors those who have passed.
Part of it reads:
"Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not here. I do not sleep.
I am the thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow."
Cemeteries can have a calming effect on us.
They are peaceful, quiet, and at times even prayerful.
At a visit to Arlington National Cemetery a few years ago, I was overwhelmed by the sense of pride I felt for the way we honor those who served in the military.
The San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery matches that same feeling.
As we honor those who paid the ultimate price in protecting our freedoms later this spring, consider spending part of a day at this very special place.
It is a place where you can listen to your heart.
Steve Newvine lives in Merced.