The notes of Taps float over the breeze as thousands of candles bravely flicker against the brisk wind. It is 8:00, the start of the 18th Annual Luminaria at Fredericksburg National Cemetery. After a few opening remarks the park staff opens the cemetery gate and hundreds of people pour up the hill into the cemetery. Their reactions differ. Some head straight for the guided tour to hear the stories of certain burials, other explore through the rows of graves, others stand still in awe of the scene unfolding in front of them as they reach the crest of the heights.
I’ve written about Fredericksburg’s Luminaria before, as well as the National Cemetery, but I had a different question than usual asked of me this year. While walking between tour stops a visitor took the time to ask how many people were involved in creating the magical scene around us. So here is your “backstage pass” to what goes into staging Fredericksburg’s annual luminaria, efforts reflective of many Memorial Day celebrations nationwide.
The planning starts months, even years, ahead of time. I’ve spend the last two summers at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania NMP researching the cemetery and its burials. After creating a new program to be used last year in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of 1862, I sat down last summer and created six additional programs highlighting year anniversaries or important themes in the cemetery’s history. This year’s program highlighted our 1863 stories since we are now commemorating the 150th anniversary of that year. Typically the visitors encounter a combination of National Park Service staff, interns, and volunteers during the event. With the staffing restrictions created by the sequester, the park’s interns and volunteers stepped up to fill the void and ensure that the program went off without a hitch. Their role in the program was leading guided tours through the cemetery and telling the stories of the soldiers buried there, and they practiced their scripts in the week leading up to the event.
Of course every good performance needs scenery and a good crew to dress the stage. Our event could not happen without the help of some very dedicated children and their adult helpers. As is traditional for Memorial Day a flag is placed in front of each of the 6,787 visible headstones within the cemetery. This is done on Friday morning, the day before the event, by school children from Fredericksburg Christian Middle School (with some help from our maintenance staff). These flags are collected after Memorial Day and reused each year.
The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are responsible for the over 15,000 luminaria bags that are prepared, placed, and lit each year. The process starts early in the year when the Scouts hold meetings to plan and prepare the materials. Each luminaria consists of three pieces: a white paper bag rolled over at the top to keep it open, a small plastic bag of sand and dirt to keep the bags from falling over or flying away, and a small white, tealight candle. These materials are all prepared and donated by the Scouts. Early in the morning on Saturday a couple hundred Boy Scouts arrive at the cemetery to place two luminaria bags at each grave as well as line them up along the Sunken Road and park paths. Because there are unknown graves that hold up to a dozen bodies, the candles are spread out through the cemetery and Sunken Road area to make up the roughly 15,400 candles needed to represent the number of burials in the cemetery. As the interpretive staff do a walk through of all the tour stops before the event, the Boy Scouts walk up the rows lighting each candle one by one.
And then it is showtime. As the sun sets the cemetery turns into a glittering maze of candles and the staff introduces several thousand visitors to the men buried in the cemetery. As the final Taps plays over the cemetery, the curtain closes on another successful luminaria. The cemetery slowly empties until only the flicker of the candles remains in the darkness. Like the ghostlight placed on stage after the show is over, only the lights remain as a reminder of the performance that has just ended. In the early morning hours the candles flicker out one by one until only the darkness remains.
By the next morning, all signs of the magical experience are erased. Very early on Sunday the Boy Scouts return and clean up all of the bags and candles. By the time staff and visitors arrive that morning only the flags greet them in the cemetery as if the luminaria had never been there. It is an event made magical by its majesty and fleeting nature and memorable by the thousands who depart the cemetery with Memorial Day on their mind and gratitude in their hearts.