Danville National Cemetery: A fitting tribute
DANVILLE — Every couple of weeks, Navy veteran Larry Cravens drives through the Danville National Cemetery to pay respects to an old friend.
Floyd E. Maddox, a U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War era, died in 2012. His white grave marker, simple like most of the other 11,500 stones here, says he was “lovingly known as Buddy.”
“We were drinking and fishing buddies and buddy buddies,” Craven said from the driver’s seat of his car as he stopped near Maddox’s final resting place.
Like others who visit, Cravens feels “very reverent” at the graveyard, one of 131 Veterans Affairs cemeteries nationwide.
And as a veteran, he feels “very honored.”
“The living will still remember what we did,” the 69-year-old Georgetown man said.
He also described the cemetery as beautiful.
“Whoever takes care of it ought to be commended because they do a good job.”
Frequent visitor Norm Smith echoed Cravens’ remarks about the burial ground tucked away behind Danville Area Community College and the neighboring VA Illiana Health Care hospital on Danville’s east side.
Smith works for a funeral home in Springfield and has been to other VA cemeteries.
“I really like the way this one is laid out, with the concentric circles,” he said. “The one near Springfield is not, and that makes some grave sites difficult for families to get to.”
Like Cravens, Smith visits the Danville National Cemetery twice a month. Unlike Cravens, Smith is not a military veteran.
As a volunteer, he pays tribute to veterans by driving them to their appointments at the VA hospital in Danville.
He usually fills his two hours of waiting by sauntering through the cemetery, following its paved circular paths.
“It’s nice and peaceful,” he said. “You kind of reflect while you walk and you have an appreciation for what you have.”
He was there early last week, the same day Cravens visited. As Smith hiked, he pointed to a couple of men in the distance, operating large riding mowers.
“I see they’re getting ready for Memorial Day.”
The preparations for it, the influx of visitors and the 10:30 a.m. ceremony Monday would take most of the week.
Last week, artificial flowers decorated only a few graves here; by this weekend, there would be many more, placed there by family and other visitors.
And Saturday, Boy Scouts, family members and other volunteers would plant at each grave site a small American flag. They usually finish the daunting task in just under two hours.
For the past two years, Rudi Shelton, an Army veteran, has been the cemetery representative, or administrator.
He says it takes the other two full-time cemetery workers here three days to finish mowing and trimming the 33-acre grounds.
They lie on gently sloped land, with trees here and there, among them Japanese lilac trees that this time of year let loose a sweet smell.
To the south, hidden behind a line of yet more trees resplendent in their spring shades of green, lies another 34 acres that also belong to the VA National Cemetery Administration.
“So we’ll double in size,” Shelton said. “When all’s said and done, there will be roughly 26,000 buried here.”
Shelton calls the cemetery — you can’t see it from East Main Street — a “hidden treasure.”
It does feel as if it lies on hallowed ground.
The land here once belonged to the Miami, Kickapoo and Pottawatomie tribes of the Algonquin Indians. In 1818, the Kickapoo ceded to the federal government a large area including what is now Vermilion County.
“Although no Civil War battles occurred here, many men from Danville volunteered for the Union,” reads the VA website about the cemetery. “The men who returned home were often sick, wounded or disabled.”
So in 1897 Congress authorized the establishment in Danville of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. The next year, a small plot of land was set aside there for burials.
That piece of land was designated a VA national cemetery in 1898. Three years later, the current burial ground was plotted. The remains of the soldiers buried in the original spot were moved to the new one — listed in 1992 on the National Register of Historic Places.
As at other national cemeteries, free-standing plaques engraved with verses from the haunting poem “Bivouac of the Dead” pay homage to veterans. Here they are placed in innermost circle.
One verse reads:
The muffled drum’s sad roll has beat
The soldier’s last tattoo;
No more on Life’s parade shall meet
That brave and fallen few
The plaques encircle “The Soldiers Monument,” which stands directly in the middle of the burial grounds. Dedicated on Memorial Day 1917, the life-sized bronze statue sculpted by Clark Noble depicts a young Civil War soldier, holding his musket.
Many Civil War soldiers are buried here, among them Lt. Morton A. Read from the Eighth New York Cavalry. He is the only Medal of Honor recipient at the Danville National Cemetery.
He has no special site. Here, officers and enlisted men, whether decorated or not, lie side by side, interred in the order they pass on to eternity.
In death, rank doesn’t matter.
And, Shelton points out, the wealthy who are not military veterans could not buy their way into this cemetery.
“If they had all the money in the world they could not be buried here,” he said. “It’s a place of honor and reverence, and we try to treat it as such.”
The VA verifies eligibility at the time of need. Only veterans and their spouses — even if they didn’t serve — may be buried in a VA cemetery.
And dependent children, among them unmarried adults, might be eligible to share with a parent a final resting place here.
Shelton knows of an older adult who had Down syndrome who is buried alongside a parent in the Danville cemetery.
About 200 burials take place here each year. Most of the dead come from a 75-mile radius.
The government picks up the entire cost of the burial.
“When a family asks about cost, I tell them when they get to the gates everything on this side is no charge,” Shelton said.
He answers but doesn’t ask questions.
“I only hear what they volunteer to me. Everyone here has a story. At a national cemetery like this, they’re not forgotten.”