An army of support surrounds Space Coast veterans’ cemetery
Visitors to the Space Coast are familiar with the beauty of its coast and the wonder of its space program. But a true place of honor in Brevard County is near the small, mainland town of Mims: Cape Canaveral National Cemetery, the final resting place for thousands of veterans.
The history of national cemeteries began during President Abraham Lincoln’s administration, when money and land were set aside for the burial of Union soldiers. It was, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, the first time a country honored its dead in such a way.
Today, the National Cemetery Administration maintains 155 national cemeteries in 42 states and Puerto Rico. Although there is not a national veterans’ cemetery in every state, Florida is home to nine, from Pensacola to Lake Worth. Cape Canaveral National Cemetery is the newest.
“Each national cemetery is planned to serve its community for about a hundred years, developed in 15-year increments,” Edward J. Lyons III, the cemetery’s director, says.
Of Cape Canaveral cemetery’s 318 acres, 116 are currently developed. Phase Two, already in progress, will encompass 20 acres and provide more than 32,000 additional gravesites. The next phase begins in 2050. Since its first burial in 2016, Cape Canaveral National Cemetery has seen about 15,000 interments in 13,000 sites. “The reason we can have more burials or interments versus gravesites is because part of our mission is that we’ll never separate the veteran from the spouse,” Lyons says. “A veteran and spouse may be interred together in the same gravesite, memorialized on the same headstone.”
With the exception of dishonorable discharges, veterans from all branches of the military are eligible for funeral benefits not only for themselves, but for spouses and certain dependents. If burial is at a national cemetery, the gravesite, grave liner, headstone, burial flag, Presidential Memorial Certificate and perpetual care are among the services offered at no cost to the family.
In the infantry with the U.S. Marine Corps, Lyons sustained injuries in Afghanistan and spent the rest of his military career as an amputee patient at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
He went on to attend college in Denver, where his brother worked at nearby Fort Logan National Cemetery. He’s the one who encouraged Lyons to apply for a job at the cemetery.
“The experience of working [there] was welcoming and cathartic,” says Lyons, who started as a caretaker. “I fell in love with the mission. It gave me a purpose in life, after the military, and afforded opportunities to come to terms with some of the harder realities of war and loss.”
Lyons, who has been with Cape Canaveral since 2022, says that veterans make up about 72 percent of the workforce in the National Cemetery Administration. Administrative specialists have responsibilities like meeting with families and taking them out for services. Equipment operators, maintenance workers and caretakers work in the field to preserve dignity and beauty throughout the grounds.
Patricia Echevarria, formerly with the 82nd Airborne division of the U.S. Army, is a receptionist at the Cape Canaveral office. She was initially impressed by the “solemn perfection” of a Memorial Day service there.
“When I was offered a job, it was such an honor,” she says. “[It’s] not just punching a clock. We take pride in laying our veterans to final rest. I love being part of this wonderful support system.”
ON THE GROUND
Walk into the cemetery office during the week and you’ll likely see a member of Cape Canaveral Ladies. The auxiliary began when founder Cozette Merritt received a card of thanks and condolence from a member of Arlington Ladies, after her own husband’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Members rotate their services, committed to being present at every interment ceremony, whether family is able to attend or not. The only requirements to volunteer are compassion, dedication and the desire to honor veterans. All ages are welcome, but most members are retirees because at least one day is requested each month. LaRue Fleming is the current chairman.
After the color guard is through and the bugle call Taps is played, volunteers present a card of appreciation and memorial pin to the family. “It’s literally the least we can do for our veterans,” Fleming says.
Cape Canaveral Ladies also assists with annual events such as Wreaths Across America at Christmas and Memorial Day celebrations.
Tom Fitzgerald has been on the cemetery’s support committee since the beginning. With his wife, Denise, he also operates Solemn Pride, a nonprofit uniquely honoring veterans with a caisson escort.
“People think of JFK’s riderless horse on its way to Arlington,” Fitzgerald says, “but the roots are in Florida history.” After the end of the Second Seminole War, remains of fallen soldiers from the 1835 Dade Massacre were brought to St. Augustine for re-burial. Reports state that “with great solemnity … the remains were brought into the city in wagons, ‘each covered by the American flag as a pall and drawn by five elegant mules.’”
Solemn Pride’s two “elegant mules” pull a custom-made wagon, accompanied by the historically uniformed Fitzgeralds. Although not contracted with the cemetery itself, caisson service is available to all. “Families appreciate it so much,” Fitzgerald says. Participating in three or four interments a week, Solemn Pride also travels for special military and first responder events, as well as military reenactments.
Several local veteran services organizations offer their support to the cemetery. The North Brevard Honor Guard consists of members from the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Sons of the American Legion. It includes a rifle squad, bugler and post chaplain.
Phil Rogers is the commander, and a former lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. “We have 14 active members and do 200 to 250 funerals a year,” he says. “It’s an honor to do what we do, for whom we do it.”
Federal regulations for full military honors are technically reserved for retired military, but the group makes no such distinctions. “One guy does three tours in Vietnam,” Rogers says. “He’s shot at, maybe wounded. He risked his life and is out in four years. Another guy spends 20 years behind a desk pushing papers. Who’s more entitled to military honors? We don’t dig into their histories.”
Families may apply online for pre-need eligibility or burial benefits. Required paperwork is submitted to one’s funeral home of choice with the request for interment at Cape Canaveral, which then contacts the cemetery.
“We can potentially get the service scheduled within just a couple of days of eligibility being verified,” Lyons says. “We try to make it as simple and quick a process as we can for grieving families.”
Committal services are scheduled on the hour and half-hour, with two shelters for services, and options for casketed or cremated remains. “About 70 percent of our interments are cremations,” Lyons says.
In-ground placement for cremated remains includes a headstone. Columbaria at the cemetery hold above-ground remains with inscribed niche covers. A third option is the ossuary, which holds co-mingled remains and a wall of memorialized names.
Senior Master Sgt. Bradley Charles Fairman designated in his will that he wished to be cremated with Neptune Society and interred at Cape Canaveral. “We decided on in-ground,” his son, Brad, says of Fairman’s committal service. “It felt more scenic, surrounded by nature for future families to visit.”
Cape Canaveral National Cemetery services a 75-mile area, covering five counties. Despite the cemetery’s back-to-back services some days, Fairman says that everything was conducted efficiently and respectfully. “It was a matter of picking a date and available time.”
“We do see visitors,” Lyons adds, “who are here regularly enough that I know them by name, talk with them and touch base, make sure that everything is going according to their expectations. Most often they’ll come back on anniversaries — birthdays, holidays, things of that nature.”
Although restrictions determine what may be placed at the cemetery, to ensure integrity and solemnity, Lyons says his crew exercises discretion. “For example, a balloon tied to a headstone,” he explains. “If I walk over and see it’s for Mother’s Day or it’s close to a birthday, we’ll leave it for that special day.”
After all, those veterans missed many special days during their service to their country. It’s only fitting that they be remembered on them now.
CAPE CANAVERAL NATIONAL CEMETERY
5525 U.S. Highway 1, North Mims
Visitation hours: Sunrise to sunset
Office hours: Monday through Friday,
8:00 a.m. to 4:30 pm. Closed on federal holidays.
CAPE CANAVERAL LADIES
NORTH BREVARD HONOR GUARD
If interested in joining, please contact
SOLEMN PRIDE, INC.