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Honoring the Fallen – Maintaining the Resting Places of the Dead

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Community Support
April 29, 2024
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In 2007, I was deployed to Habbaniyah, Iraq, which lies about 30 minutes west of Fallujah. While there, I learned Habbaniyah was the site of a war cemetery used to bury British military personnel killed during WW2. After the base was turned over to the Iraqi government, the cemetery fell into disrepair, made worse by the first and second Gulf Wars. 

A full reconstruction was completed in 2019, when the region was stable enough to accomplish the necessary work, but in the years prior, many US Marine Corps units, based out of Habbaniyah, spent time making what repairs they could. During my tenure, headstones were cleaned and righted as well as could be managed, and the grounds were maintained as best as we could with the materials we had available.

When visiting the markers of our friends and loved ones who have passed, we often see evidence of neglect, or the encroachment of nature attempting to reclaim the space left unattended, and there is a desire to correct this indelicate invasion of time. For that reason, here are a few steps you can take if you choose to do so, but always remember to tread respectfully.

Grounds keeping

First and foremost, keep the area clear of weeds, vines, and other fast-growing plants. A trowel and some elbow grease, or a solid but safe weed killer can keep these pests at bay. Weeds themselves are usually nothing but an eyesore, but vines or sturdy roots can knock over, uproot, or crack grave markers and tombs alike. Ensuring the area is kept clean and clear of leaves and other debris can help stop the spread as well.

Marker Maintenance

Modern markers are heavy stone, and grounded solidly, but older markers may not be as structurally sound. If replacing a fallen marker, move it from the site, clear and dig out the spot ensuring the final pocket of earth is level, and set it back in place. When refilling the earth around it, make certain the marker is level and firmly in place, and the dirt you fill in is tamped down hard to prevent settling.

Once the marker is set in place, cleaning the marker of debris and biological material will vastly extend its life. With a little dish soap and some warm water, use a cloth or scrubbing sponge and a firm bristled toothbrush to clean the stone, being sure to scrub any filigree and engraving to keep it clean and legible. If there is already significant growth, and something more potent is needed, a small amount of ammonia will help cut through moss and algae growth.

Silent Respect

Whatever your views on the afterlife or lack thereof may be, cemeteries are places of quiet reflection, and your visits there should accommodate that. Those fallen should be left to rest, and those families visiting the sites of their loved ones given the peace to pay their respects. Whatever you choose to do to keep these sacred places clean and maintained, do so knowing that it will one day be your site someone else keeps clear, and behave accordingly.

(Army Photo by Spc. Noelle Wiehe)

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