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New veterans cemetery in Camden to be dedicated Memorial Day weekend

On each side of the elegant double gate on Kaighns Avenue, large granite monoliths will honor each branch of the military.

At the new Camden County Veterans Cemetery are members of area veterans groups (from left) Harry Aharon, Jack Conners, and Art Bancroft. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)
At the new Camden County Veterans Cemetery are members of area veterans groups (from left) Harry Aharon, Jack Conners, and Art Bancroft. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)Read more

On each side of the elegant double gate on Kaighns Avenue, large granite monoliths will honor each branch of the military.

At the end of a divided macadam road, a memorial will pay tribute to Vietnam veterans, while a looping brick walkway will carry visitors past graves to a bluff overlooking the Cooper River.

And there, polished black-granite columbariums and mausoleums, and rows of headstones will cover the grounds, while the flags of the nation, state, and county flutter overhead.

The new Camden County Veterans Cemetery in Camden has been slowly rising since 2007 from what was once an overgrown eight-acre tract adjacent to Harleigh Cemetery.

The Vietnam War Memorial will be unveiled during ceremonies March 30, a day declared by Congress as "Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day." And the cemetery's Kaighns Avenue entrance will be dedicated May 26 as part of Memorial Day weekend observances.

"There is no greater sacrifice to our country than the sacrifice made by men and women in our armed services," Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli said. "Having a dedicated burial ground is a proper way to pay respect to those who have given their lives for our country."

The cemetery adjoins Harleigh Cemetery, which - since its opening in 1885 - has been a favorite destination for visitors who view it as a park and outdoor art museum.

People come to see the carved Celtic cross rising 20 feet over the grave of Civil War hero and U.S. Sen. William Joyce Sewell, and admire stone columns, angelic figures, a life-size bronze elk, and mausoleums adorned with stained glass.

Walt Whitman, the famed poet, and Nicholas A. Virgilio, an internationally recognized author of haiku, also are buried there.

The veterans cemetery provides a new reason to visit - and a place for gatherings to mark Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and other observances.

The land originally was owned by the Harleigh Cemetery Association, and the Kaighns Avenue gate served as an entrance to the cemetery until the 1920s.

The tract later was given to the county, which turned it over again to Harleigh in 2002 and is now partnering with the cemetery for the veterans project.

"The county was not interested in being in the cemetery business, but wanted to provide a space for veterans," said Dan Keashen, a county spokesman.

Harleigh was a natural fit, said Louis Cicalese, president of the cemetery's board of trustees.

"We have served the burial needs of veterans since the Civil War," Cicalese said. "Continuing that tradition is something our board is committed to."

For several years, "veterans had been talking about having a final resting place in the county where families could come to visit," said Harry Aharon, commander of the Camden County Veterans Advisory Committee and a Gloucester City resident who served in the Air Force from 1964 to 1968.

"This is a nice environment for people to show respect to the veterans and their service," he said. "When I was 10, 11, and 12, I used to ride my bike to this area from Gloucester City."

A veterans cemetery committee, formed in 2004, set the cemetery guidelines and presented them to the freeholders, who sought bids, then chose Harleigh, Aharon said.

The county paid $40,000 for the first year of its 10-year Harleigh contract to provide veteran services, beginning in 2007, then $50,000 in the second year, Keashen said. It is paying $73,000 over the next eight years.

The building of the gate, macadam road, and circle, land clearing, grading, and additional improvements cost the county $600,000, Keashen said. Other costs on the bluff closest to Harleigh are being borne by the cemetery.

About 300 veterans already have been interred at the site even as work on the grounds continues, said Jack Conners, director of the Camden County Office of Veterans Affairs.

County vets are provided free grave sites and crypts and will be charged a $800 to $950 fee for opening and closing of a grave, as well as a one-time fee of $143 for maintenance, officials said.

The 800-square-foot Harleigh Cemetery Chapel also is available for military services and is free. The eight-acre cemetery can receive the remains of about 16,000.

Free graves also have been provided at the state-operated Brig. Gen. William C. Doyle Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Arneytown, Burlington County.

"But people have wanted a cemetery closer to them for years," said Art Bancroft, a service officer for the Camden County Office of Veterans Affairs, who served in the Marines in the 1950s. "They would ask, 'Why do we have to go to Arneytown?' I'd say, 'We're working on it.'

"My dad - Army Pfc. Raymond Bancroft - is buried here," he said. "He served in World War I."

On the Harleigh-side entrance to the veterans cemetery is a black-granite monument with the words, "We Will Always Remember Your Service, Honor, Sacrifice." It stands near a mausoleum and columbarium that will likely be followed by the construction of others, as well as a new chapel, said Chris Mojica, Harleigh's manager.

"Cemeteries are for the living . . . for remembrance," said Mojica, who praised the site's natural beauty. "We've had a bald eagle flying overhead, red-tail hawks, and deer. We have willows, oaks, and maples."

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