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Local couple takes vacation to ‘sacred ground’

A section of Arlington National Cemetery is freshly decorated with Christmas wreaths. Photos courtesy of Bob and Karen Atkins1 / 2
Bob and Karen Atkins stand in front of a garden (section) where they just finished helping lay wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. Photos courtesy of Bob and Karen Atkins2 / 2

Local residents Karen and Bob Atkins traveled to the Washington, D.C. area earlier this month to lay wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery.

It was a bit of a “busman’s holiday” for the couple, who are owners and directors of Atkins-Northland Funeral Home in Cloquet.

“We had read about it a year ago, two colleagues from Minnesota had done it and there was an article published,” Karen explained. “I told Bob it would be a great thing to do and he agreed.”

They went online and discovered there was no registration needed to volunteer, people are asked simply to show up at the cemetery on the day.

That’s exactly what they did Dec. 14.

“There were actually at least 31 semi-loads of wreaths. Our truck was No. 29. It was a Halvor Lines truck, a big semi full of wreaths. We chose our gardens because of the Halvor Lines truck, we thought ‘Hey, a local connection,’ so we went over there,” Karen said.

Along with close to 50 other volunteers who chose the same truck, Bob and Karen laid wreaths on tombstones in Gardens 39 and 41. It took the group less than an hour to lay 3,000 wreaths. (Each year, about a fourth of the tombstones are decorated with the wreaths, which are made and donated by a company out of Maine.)

The one word Karen used to describe the experience was “humbling.”

“They asked us to stop at each grave — it was not a marathon — and to say a prayer or just pay respect to this person,” she said. “I looked at one gentleman’s service information... he served in World War I, World War II and Korea. It was like, ‘Oh my goodness, think of the wars that this gentleman saw.’ And he got us to where we are. And are we any better? Who’s to say? That was really humbling. He was not killed in the military, but he was buried there.”

Burial in Arlington is generally limited to active, retired, and former members of the armed forces, Medal of Honor recipients, high-ranking federal government officials and their


While they were at the cemetery, Bob and Karen also visited President Kennedy’s grave, as well as those of his brothers, Robert and Teddy. The President’s wife, Jackie, his son and a daughter are also buried there, with strikingly little fanfare, Karen said.

“His grave is very humble,” she said, noting that the eternal flame burns nearby. “No huge granite structure that you would anticipate from the Kennedys. … They’ve just got the military markers and a white cross, nothing else.”

They also saw a number of Purple Heart recipients and Bronze Star recipients.

As funeral home professionals, the experience was especially moving.

To know that you’re in an area where so many people are laid to rest … it was incredibly sacred ground,” Karen said. “I thought of all the families that have been touched. Some 440,000 have had to go through the grieving process because someone they love is buried there. It was inspiring to know that, hopefully, we as funeral service professionals, have aided some of those people in their walk through grief.

“It was humbling, very, very humbling.”


Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., contains the remains of some 440,000 people from the Unites States and 11 other countries, buried there since the 1860s. More than 4 million people visit the cemetery annually, which averages about 5,000 funerals each year. Arlington averages 28 funerals, including interments and inurnments, a day. The flags in Arlington National Cemetery are flown at half-staff from a half hour before the first funeral until a half hour after the last funeral each day.