Cemetery headstones can add only little to an understanding of a person’s existence. But in Florida National Cemetery, we already know what those soldiers, sailors, airmen, and nurses accomplished. Their legacy surrounds us every day.
By Gary McKechnie
Bushnell isn’t close to much. It’s 50 miles west of Orlando, 60 miles north of Tampa, and 70 miles south of Gainesville. On the outskirts of town along winding County Road 476B, a side road pierces the Withlacoochee State Forest, disappears through a canopy of oaks, and re-emerges into the solitude of the Florida National Cemetery.
From here, two-lane tributaries reach deeper into this 517-acre national shrine. Loop roads pass individual sections, gleaming headstones linking those sections together like a strand of pearls.
Established on June 1, 1988, this silent place is the second-most active cemetery in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration. ‘Active’ in the sense that 131,000 veterans and their dependents now at rest here are joined by as many as two dozen more every single day. With more than 7,000 burials each year, the best calculations anticipate the Florida National Cemetery will reach capacity by 2030.
To grasp these figures, if you spent just a single minute at each site, it would take more than three months to pay your respects. Cut your schedule back to an eight hour-day and you would be here for nearly a year.
A Day in the Life
When you come here, you may spend time at the final resting place of a friend or relative, walk in the shade of the memorial pathway, or simply pay tribute to individuals you never knew but whose lives affected your own.
For many of the deceased, the final journey begins on an avenue near the entrance where, several times each day, family members park in rows and await their moment to join a funeral cortege. The first departs just after 9 a.m. and, soon after arriving at one of eight committal shelters, family and friends say goodbye at a brief ceremony. After this, the cycle repeats itself again and again until the final service takes place at 2:30 p.m. This happens Monday through Friday, week after week, month after month, and year after year.
The team that maintains this demanding schedule also maintains high standards. So finely tuned is the process, it is possible for families to visit their loved one’s final resting place by 4 p.m. even if the service concluded just 90 minutes earlier. And when the workday is over it’s remarkable to see that in a place dedicated largely to a profession where the chain of command is paramount, those links are forever dissolved. Time and again you will find generals and privates, admirals and ensigns, resting side by side for eternity.
An Honorable Guard
It was a Tuesday when I visited, privileged to tour the grounds with cemetery director Kurt Rotar, an Army veteran who served as a medic in Vietnam. Even though his responsibilities are daunting, he feels that the cemetery representatives who meet with each family face a more challenging task.
“They have a tougher time,” Rotar suggests. “They’re the ones who make the first impression. There is no do-over. They must treat that service as the only service they do that day. If they ever lose sight of that – if they ever lose their compassion -- then it is time to move on.”
From my observations, that appears unlikely. A surplus of compassion, it seems, is as abundant as the care and concern displayed in every aspect of the operation. This hit home during my tour when we came upon an employee methodically adjusting a long row of headstones. Shovels and tools at his feet, beneath the blazing sun he employed a taut string and precise level to re-set each 250-pound marker with great care and exacting accuracy.
While this was just one man in a staff of 64 — 80 percent of whom are veterans — he was representative of them all. The other groundskeepers and landscapers, directors and caretaketers, mechanics and office staff and schedulers and representatives are all united in a single purpose: Working together to achieve the common goal of honoring the dead on this day and forever.
The End of Day
Veterans’ cemeteries offer a historical record of America, and at the Florida National Cemetery you will find history in the headstones. Look closely and there is a surgeon’s assistant from the Civil War, soldiers from World War I, the first Native American to graduate from West Point (Major David Moniac, Class of 1822), and men whose heroism resulted in the nation’s highest honors including the Silver Star, Navy Cross, and even the Congressional Medal of Honor.
But whatever they witnessed is over now, and today the cemetery is a muted place, the silence interrupted only occasionally by the sharp report of an honor guard firing a final salute or the wail of Taps floating through the forest.
The stillness becomes even more pronounced when you see that someone has returned to carry on a conversation interrupted by death. I saw this as a man sat in the full sun, his folding chair bringing him face to face with a marker embossed with a name he knew. He noticed my presence, nodded toward me with kindness, and without a second thought returned to the conversation with his lost friend.
And all was quiet.
Florida National Cemetery
6502 S.W. 102nd Ave.
Open daily during daylight hours
- The cemetery finds the largest number of visitors arriving for special services on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, attracting 7,000 and 5,000 visitors respectively.
- At the visitors center kiosk, a computer monitor helps you locate gravesites by name.
- Should a family request it, the staff maintains a list of Veterans Service Organization units that may be contacted to arrange a military honor group at the service.
For more information on this and other historic tours in Florida go to VISIT FLORIDA's official arts & historic sites guide.
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