A Resting Place of Reverence as the North Dakota Sky Grows Dark

Lillian had set the newspaper beside my coffee cup on the dining room table while I was at the Y the other morning. A big headline reading “Cemetery lighting project may seek $400,000” was circled and she had written across it in big black letters: “This is a bad idea.”

She was right.

Te North Dakota Veterans Cemetery is a place of quiet reflection at sunset
The North Dakota Veterans Cemetery is a place of quiet reflection at sunset

The story said local boosters were requesting to put up 40 light poles with 93 lights all the way around the inside of the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery, lighting it up like the Dakota Speedway, a few miles up the road. Here’s a link to the story.

The story read like it was pretty much a done deal, but Adjutant General David Sprynczynatyk, who’s been around government a long, long time, was astute enough to know that he better have some kind of a public meeting to at least give the appearance of seeking public input before authorizing such a dramatic change to one of our state’s most revered places.

So last night, at the Raymond J. Bohn Armory, headquarters for the North Dakota National Guard, which oversees the operation of the cemetery, 40 or so people showed up to express their feelings about the project to General Sprynczynatyk, the man who will make the decision on whether to proceed with the project “within a few days,” according to one of his staff. Except that the General wasn’t there to hear them. He missed the meeting.

Here’s what he missed, in case no one talks to him before he makes his decision: Other than the three well-intentioned boosters who came up with this scheme, and Col. Clark Johnson, who ran the meeting, and a few National Guard staff, everybody was against it. Veterans. Neighbors. People who have family members buried there. Plain old interested citizens. Oh, there was one guy there who was just expressing some skepticism, not totally opposed. The classic line came from a Vietnam vet in a black leather jacket who said he “came with an open mind” but had decided this was a solution in search of a problem.

The boosters couldn’t even keep their stories straight. They started out by saying the intent was to help people find the graves of their loved ones after dark. By the end of the meeting the purpose had become to make the cemetery more attractive.

Right. By putting up 40 light poles, 30 feet high, in one of the most beautiful places in North Dakota. Never mind about the light pollution at night. Imagine what those 40 poles do to the integrity of the place during the day.

The engineer's rendering of the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery lighting project
The engineer’s rendering of the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery lighting project

Col. Johnson presented nighttime renderings made by an engineering firm, showing almost no light against a black background. No one at the meeting believed for a minute that the renderings were accurate. But there were no renderings showing the 40 poles in the daytime.

It was pretty obvious that the Guard has already given tacit approval for the project, and the meeting last night was just going through the motions to give neighbors a chance to express their opinions, and to hear the boosters tell them why their opinions were wrong. But the neighbors, those folks who have rural residences near the cemetery, weren’t buying it. They were pretty steadfast in their opposition. So were a number of people with family members buried there.

The boosters, meanwhile, have already gone out and gotten pledges and checks for $200,000 which, at the beginning of the meeting they said would go to the cemetery even if the lights were not installed, and at the end said they had to give much of it back if the General shot it down, leaving most of us a little confused about the real story. They did provide one of the funnier moments of the night when one of them said that someone who had written a ten-thousand dollar check said he was excited about being able to see the cemetery all lit up on his way home from the casino.

Now I’ve known all three of the boosters for years, and they are well-intentioned men, good community leaders, who came up with what they thought was a good idea over coffee one morning and have devoted much of their time for the last few months to this project. They’ve taken this project so far down the road that I’m having a hard time seeing how General Sprynczynatyk can turn them away. They surely didn’t go out and get those checks without approval from the National Guard, which made everyone even more suspicious that this is a done deal, and the project was going to get the green light in spite of last night’s opposition.

I’m not going to go any farther in making the case against the lighting project. I’m going to let Lillian do that. She made the following statement at the meeting last night, and was the only speaker who got any applause. I was very proud of her. This is not something she likes to do. She tends to be more comfortable keeping a low profile and letting her loudmouth husband make the noise. But you’ll see, in the first paragraph of her statement, why she is so passionate about this. Her remarks were addressed to the General, even though he was not there. She provided a written copy to him at his office earlier in the day. Here’s what she said last night.

I am Lillian Crook, here tonight to speak in opposition to the ND Veterans Cemetery lighting proposal. My now-elderly father was on the Normandy beaches on D-Day. I was born in a base hospital and my siblings and I joined him in living on bases around the world throughout his lengthy Army career. Upon his retirement, he was very committed to, and had Life memberships in, the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and Forty et Eight. Through the years, for these organizations, he served on numerous committees, and held offices on the local, state, and national levels. In those organizations, he worked diligently on the creation of the ND Veterans Cemetery. He will be buried there, as will my husband, a veteran of the Vietnam War. 

I believe it would be a shame to turn our state Veterans Cemetery into a park or tourist attraction with fully-lighted roads and walking paths. I hope you will agree that this is truly a very bad idea.

There is nothing wrong with cemeteries being dark at night. Most national military cemeteries close at sunset: Gettysburg National Military Cemetery is one perfect example. Antietam is another. Shiloh is another. When I read the story in the paper, it resonated with me because I just recently visited Antietam and Gettysburg. Ending the day at these places is very powerful and reverential, in the quiet and approaching dusk, much as it is on the vast prairie hillside of the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery. 

 Even our most famous and most visited, Arlington National Cemetery, closes its gates as the sun goes down, with minimal lighting at the gate and at Arlington House, and inside, only soft lighting providing a dramatic silhouette of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

In addition to our national military cemeteries, many state veterans’ cemeteries are open to visitation during daylight hours only. North Dakota’s is one of several open 24 hours, although it has very few visitors after dark. That may or may not change with lights. In summer, the sky is dark for only a matter of hours at night, affording long daylight hours for cemetery visitation. In my opinion, the long cold nights of winter will attract few visitors to the cemetery after dark.  Those that do visit in the dark have their car headlights on to navigate the driveways and can use a flashlight to locate a grave! 

It would be a tragedy to let a blazing arc of artificial light diminish the impact of five thousand white granite headstones reflecting the light of the prairie full moon, headstones arranged in perfect symmetry out of respect for the military order our state’s war heroes commanded and obeyed. Likewise, the lights would obscure the night sky, particularly Polaris, the North Star, as it stands its eternal vigil at the very top of the cemetery. 

I can’t speak for the neighbors, many who have been there several generations, who will lose the dark sky they have become accustomed to, but my husband and I are among the tens of thousands of campers who use Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, whose view to the south and west will resemble the glow of a theme park just over the hill. The addition of lighting to these places is really almost akin to turning our military cemeteries into some sort of tourist attraction or artistic project, rather than places of solemnity and dignity. This is also why there are such strict aesthetic guidelines on headstones, and why military cemeteries adhere to well-defined design and construction codes. 

Recently I read of plans to purchase additional land for expansion of the cemetery with plans to have enough burial space for another 150 years. Will we continue to add more and more lights as the cemetery expands? 

It seems to me that if funds are going to be spent in the name of North Dakota veterans, we might find better uses for them, such as addressing the problems of homelessness, unemployment and mental illness. 

I do not want to diminish the enthusiasm of community boosters who want to enhance what they might view as a local attraction. But this is much more than an attraction. It is a cemetery. A military cemetery. This is the final resting place for thousands of veterans and their spouses, and will be for many thousands more in the future. I hope that, out of respect for their service, you act to ensure that our veterans cemetery be a resting place of reverence as the North Dakota sky grows dark.

Thank you.

I think I want to share her statement with the people who wrote the checks. They’ve only heard one side of the story. They deserve to hear the other. I’m pretty sure the General will share the names and the amounts they donated, and we can send them a nice letter.

Subdued lighting guides visitors to the entrance of the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery ad to the flag display at its center.
Subdued lighting guides visitors to the entrance of the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery and to the flag display at its center.

Meanwhile, you decide how you feel about this project. The General is dangerously close, from what Col. Johnson said last night, to making the decision. So if you agree with Lillian and me and the other folks at the meeting last night, that this is a bad idea, why don’t you give the General a call and register your disapproval. (You don’t have to be a veteran to register an opinion on this.) Just leave a message that you are opposed to lighting up the Veterans Cemetery. His phone number is 701-333-2001.

7 thoughts on “A Resting Place of Reverence as the North Dakota Sky Grows Dark

  1. When I die, let me lie
    Without halogen lights
    Obscuring the sky.

    May my resting place
    Be peaceful, I pray,
    And not lit like a parking lot
    Every hour each day.

    No solace disrupted by
    A metal light pole;
    Let soft breezes and star light
    Comfort my soul.

    The ND Veterans Cemetery is sacred ground. I believe the addition of light poles would detract from the natural beauty of the landscape overlooking the Missouri River. While I appreciate the efforts of fundraisers wanting to improve the site, I’d much rather see the money go toward some other veterans’ project.

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  2. Jim – Thanks for the information on this. I did call the Adjutant General’s office this morning and left a message with the individual who answered the phone that I strongly oppose the lighting project. My parents are both buried at the Veteran’s Cemetery and I agree that this would dramatically change the existing atmosphere of quiet reverence for the veterans buried there.

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  3. Well written, Lillian, perfectly stated. One of the things I prized most during my twenty years in North Dakota, was the peace of a pristine night. Lighting is a violence against that sensation of awesome and eternal belonging to this place. May the General be receptive to your…our…concerns.

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  4. Jim-
    Boy, did Lilian knock this one “out of the park”. Adding the lights would turn the cemetery into a box store parking lot with a bunch of cement bumpers. As a photographer I know that the cameras today are so light efficient that a photo can be taken in almost utter darknesss. Lets leave the cemetery that way.
    Hands off General S!

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  5. I had planned to be buried there, but if there are lights, forget it.

    Phu Cat AB, Vietnam 1971

    My father (WWII, Korea, Vietnam (2) is at Arlington National with my mother, otherwise he would have been there. My father-in-law, Albert Deg, Purple Heart, WWII, is there. Lights are a far cry from “Rest in Peace.”

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