© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

At Holy Cross Cemetery, honoring thousands who served, one flag at a time

American flags in the ground at a cemetery
Ygal Kaufman
/
Ideastream Public media
Holy Cross Cemetery in Brook Park is home to the final resting spots of thousands U.S. veterans. Every year, the Sterba family leads volunteers on an act of remembrance.

A Northeast Ohio Memorial Day tradition that started nearly 75 years ago held its annual gathering at Holy Cross Cemetery in Brook Park Thursday morning. The Sterba family along with friends and strangers spent the day planting American flags at the graves of all the veterans buried there.

All 17,822 of them.

Neil Sterba’s earliest memories as a child are of going to the cemetery with his father, John Sterba, a World War II veteran who started the tradition as a way of honoring the veterans buried there.

man stands looking off screen wearing blue shirt
Ygal Kaufman
/
Ideastream Public Media
Neil Sterba took over the tradition of placing flags on veterans' graves at Holy Cross Cemetery from his father John, a World War II veteran.

It's ingrained in my blood. My earliest memories are from kindergarten, bringing my friends up here and helping my dad, who, you know, had a cart and was doing it with maybe 30 or 40 people,” said Sterba.

This year's involved more than 150 people helping with the task The list of veterans' graves has grown, too. Sterba noted that most of the new names on the list are veterans of the Vietnam War.

I've done it all my life, and I love it. And, now it's, it's a tradition,” Sterba said, noting his father started it in 1951. “Plus, there's a lot of good friends now. A lot of people that I've known forever that are doing it. And, you know, I get new people and it's just a great day.”

boxes of flags in foreground, people gathered in background at cemetery.
Ygal Kaufman
/
Ideastream Public Media
It takes a lot of American flags to make sure every grave gets one, so Neil Sterba orders nearly 18,000 of them to make sure there are plenty to go around.

Holy Cross Cemetery covers 285 acres and includes 146,000 graves. It’s easy to get lost. Sterba has a master list of all the veterans' graves and provides maps on how to get to them. As groups of volunteers arrived, Sterba and his core group of volunteers distributed boxes of flags, pikes for hole-making and maps to the assigned groups of graves.

Some of the volunteers came in groups from organizations or schools; others were veterans themselves or had veterans in their family. Some were just friends of the Sterbas.

two people look at a map in a field among small American flags.
Ygal Kaufman
/
Ideastream Public Media
It's easy to get lost on Holy Cross' vast grounds, and there are a lot graves to go over. So Sterba recommends everyone go in groups to manage the different tasks involved.

“We’re real close with the Sterbas, so whenever he asks for help we’re always here to help,” said Brad Sprecher, who has been coming for over a decade to plant flags. His group had 400 flags to plant on their to-do list.

Sterba’s popularity and closeness with the community are what powers the thriving annual memorial operation.

three people stand with tools at a cemetery
Ygal Kaufman
/
Ideastream Public Media
In each group of flag planters, it's useful to have someone working the map, someone checking the graves for veteran status and someone working the pike to make a place for the flags.

As much as the event is dedicated to the memory of those who’ve passed, it’s also a joyous gathering for those who remain. At the operations center, volunteers shared bagels and coffee as old friends met up and new connections were made. The mood could best be described as bright - for a cemetery, that is.

“It’s people’s favorite day of the year. I’m not lying,” said Sterba. “It's people's favorite day of the year.”

Tags
Ygal Kaufman is a multiple media journalist with Ideastream Public Media.