Thu, Nov 7, 2013 07:26 PM
Headstones stand tall, as soldiers in formation, at the Vermont
Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Randolph. Photos by Nancy Graf.
In autumn, when the trees are bare and the land can be read as
easily as a book, the headstones curve and dip along the subtle
contours of the hillside, the markers as precisely aligned with
their neighbors as soldiers standing in formation. But unlike
stones in practically every other cemetery in Vermont, none of
these lean or list, no matter winter's violence. At the Vermont
Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Randolph, Bob Durkee's job is to see
that they don't.
Durkee has been in charge of the grounds at the Vermont Veterans
Memorial Cemetery since the cemetery was dedicated in July 1993. He
attended the first interment two days after the dedication, and has
attended nearly all of the more than 3,000 interments that have
occurred in the years since.
Once, twice, even-occasionally-three times a day, he digs a hole
for a casket or an urn and waits at a respectful distance through a
family's graveside service. Notwithstanding how many times he has
heard the sharp retort of rifles, he still flinches involuntarily
when the Randolph American Legion Post #9's honor guard cleaves the
air with its salute to the fallen. Then follows the keening sound
of "Taps," played by another aging member of the Post. He
watches other members of the honor guard, this pair from Camp
Johnson, fold the flag and hand it reverently to the deceased's
closest relative. When everyone else has dispersed, Durkee fills
the hole and finishes up on his knees, using his hands to pat the
sod into place with such care that it's hard to find the breaks in
It is a job that would overwhelm some people. Even Durkee, whose
thoughts are rarely far from this cemetery, finds the suicides of
so many young Vermont veterans over the past decade deeply
troubling. "It's the saddest part of my job," he admits.
For the most part, though, Durkee's soothing air of competence
belies the emotional aspects of his work. He divines in every
shovelful of dirt, in May's spectacular display of apple blossom,
in every piece of polished marble, and in the endless whine of his
crew's lawnmowers, the higher purpose of his labors.
"Because I didn't serve, I feel like it's my way of honoring
them," he says of his work on behalf of veterans whose remains come
to rest at the cemetery. "And if a veteran wants to talk, I let
them talk. It's more than a job for me."
Reared in nearby Tunbridge on the Durkee homestead, the only
homestead in Vermont still in the hands of the family that settled
it, Durkee spent his youth helping out on the farm. His first
paying job was mowing the Durkee cemetery on the family's property.
When he finally left, he moved to Randolph and went to work for
Vermont Technical College on its grounds maintenance crew.
In 1993, 44 years after a group of Vermont veterans began lobbying
for a cemetery dedicated to those who had served, the Vermont
Veterans Memorial Cemetery opened on land Vermont Technical College
had purchased from a farmer whose fields abutted the college's
campus. The cemetery provides free burial plots and marble or
granite markers, either upright or flat, for all veterans interred.
For a small fee, veterans' spouses and dependent children may also
be interred here.
All Durkee had to do to report for his new job was walk down the
hill behind the campus. He thought his responsibilities would be
"just mowing grass, burying people, and putting in headstones, but
I didn't have that attitude for long. Seeing people come here
changed the way I saw things. I started thinking that it's my job
to take the sadness off their faces," he says, referring to the
mourners. He does this by literally wearing out shovels and
maintaining one of the most beautiful veterans cemeteries in the
"The only training I had was visual, going around to different
cemeteries and seeing how they did things. I taught myself to set
stones. I learned a lot about the stones and finishes. I started
making my own tools," he says, pointing to the rubber bumpers he
designed for the lawnmowers so that metal and stone never
"It's amazing how long it takes to tend to all the details," he
says. And the workload is only going to increase. An expansion of
the cemetery will begin next summer.
In the fall of 2003 he added two days of vacation to a weekend and
traveled to Arlington National Cemetery, where he had arranged a
behind-the-scenes tour to see how the feds managed their most
famous cemetery. He arrived, as arranged, at 5:30 a.m. No one was
there to meet him. He persuaded the guards to let him start his own
tour. Eventually, the quality-control officer caught up with him,
but by then Durkee had seen enough.
"I was appalled," he says of the chipped stones, trampled grass,
and sloppy trim work. He won't return to Arlington, but he would
enjoy a busman's holiday to see the American cemetery at
Durkee also used his own time to help out after Tropical Storm
Irene. The night of the storm, he drove to the cemetery to check on
things. Within the Circle of Flags at the entrance, flags were
slapping sharply against their poles, so he decided to take them
down before the wind gusts shredded them.
Two days later, assured that the cemetery was okay, he traveled by
truck, ATV, and foot to Rochester, where floodwaters had undermined
a cemetery, washing up caskets and upending them, spilling remains
into the riverbed.
"I wouldn't have done that if I hadn't developed respect for the
dead here," he says. Even so, the work was regarded as so traumatic
for the people who performed it that Durkee's supervisor offered to
provide counseling. Durkee declined. "I had a good idea what to
expect. Most people couldn't have done it, but I knew I could, so I
The Vermont Veterans Memorial Cemetery is not full, but the
developed area is approaching capacity; hence the plans to expand.
The row upon row of nearly identical marble and granite markers
marching down the hill from the white chapel convey the idea of
corporate identity just as military uniforms do. But Durkee doesn't
see these graves in the aggregate. For him, this job is personal.
The graves he tends are the resting places of servicemen and women
who remain individuals even in death.
"There's over 3,000 people interred here, and when someone asks
where someone is buried, I often amaze myself. Sometimes I can tell
them," he says with uncharacteristic pride.
So he won't mind getting down on his hands and knees in the spring
to straighten any markers knocked askew by the long winter.
"I love this place," he says, as if it didn't show clearly enough
in all he does.
Nancy Price Graff is a Montpelier freelance writer and editor.