Zack Sees Momentum Building for Cemetery Marker Upkeep Effort
For Ed Zack Jr., what started out as a single mission—seeking cemetery upkeep of his family’s overgrown grave markers, including that of his dad, a World War II veteran—has grown into a movement that’s gaining momentum, with the help of many.
With Memorial Day approaching, the very first group Ed wants to help others recognize are the thousands of military veterans laid to rest in cemeteries statewide. Ed says the majority are the “common soldier” who not only stepped up to serve, but shaped shoreline communities during their lives. Simply put, their places of eternal rest should be respected.
“This is about the veterans. They can’t be forgotten, but they are now, and for many years, and statewide,” Ed says of countless sunken and overgrown markers in cemeteries across Connecticut.
The same is true for in-ground markers of many non-veterans in perpetual care, too, he says.
“Everyone just wants the markers to be clear of weeds and raised. That’s all.”
As a Branford resident who appreciates the support his town shows for military veterans, the rash of overgrown markers in Connecticut’s cemeteries seems especially neglectful to Ed. Meanwhile, he holds the upkeep of Town of Branford memorial markers and gardens as an example of the respect military veterans deserve.
He thanks first selectman Jamie Cosgrove, Public Works supervisor Gary Zielinski, members of the town’s veterans’ organizations, Boy Scouts, and many others for the effort and consideration they’ve shown Branford’s military deceased.
In 2021, to mark Veterans Day, the Zack and Zielinksi families sponsored a new soldiers’ plaque and pollinator garden at Foote Park, installed with assistance from Parks and Recreation. Branford Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 12106 and American Legion Post 83, and Stony Creek Fife & Drum Corps participated in the dedication ceremony. The plaque reads, in part, “These brave soldiers are the embodiment of our Branford community which they so loved and called their home.” Recently, two benches were added with small placards sharing the sentiments “Stand Tall, Be Proud, Be Forever Grateful, Forever In Our Hearts.”
Holding up a photo crowded with WWII veterans who joined Ed’s dad for a reunion in Branford in 1950, Ed says military veterans lucky enough to return home from war helped shape and support their communities.
“These are all people who should be remembered. They were brothers; they were teenagers. They are people. We shouldn’t forget them.”
While veterans groups, assisted by Boy Scouts, place flags at veterans’ graves on military holidays; and join with community volunteers to undertake veterans’ grave recognition programs such as Branford resident Mark Hally’s Wreaths Across America effort (also assisted by Branford Fire Department); in many cases, some military graves are overlooked, because their markers are overgrown, says Ed.
One hot summer day during a volunteer marker-clearing effort in Branford, Ed met Boy Scout representative and Madison resident Adam Fuchs, who brought his young son to the cemetery to help clear weeds overgrowing markers.
“He took the time and brought his son to do that,” says Ed.
In his own efforts over many years to try to ensure the upkeep of cemetery markers, Ed has learned a lot. He credits US congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D) and staffer Jennifer Lamb for providing some important guidance early on. Ed also reached out to state agencies, only to learn no legislation exists to provide a remedy. Upon seeking state legislative support this year, Ed says he received the rapid and caring response of state Senator Christine Cohen (D, District 12) and her staff.
In February, Cohen proposed a bill concerning upkeep of military veterans’ graves in cemeteries. As it was presented, Senate Bill (SB) 636 sought to establish a process for complaints about the neglect of veterans’ graves and provide for resolution through the state Department of Consumer Protection and the state Department of Veterans Affairs.
On February 7, Ed, together with other state and local residents, including Branford’s Tom Brockett, joined Cohen in providing supporting testimony to the Veterans Affairs Committee in Hartford.
In her testimony, Cohen stated, “We certainly honor our veterans in life, and that needs to continue in death, not only in the burial ceremony but also in the upkeep of their grave sites to show our commitment to their sacrifice and ideal. This is an issue for so many veterans and their families. I’m trying to create a process by which that problem – which seems relatively simple and straightforward to resolve—can actually be resolved. It’s a matter of respect and simple decency.”
In his emotional testimony, Ed said, “What is going on now is flat-out wrong. Veterans are being grossly disrespected. There’s no one that’s caring for veterans’ graves – they’re in disgusting condition at some cemeteries.”
Brockett, a Vietnam veteran, retired labor law attorney, and former Branford Representative Town Meeting (RTM) member and Democratic minority leader (2021), provided further insight, testifying, “...there are some cemeteries that are not subject to state law, and that’s the key here. What Senator Cohen’s bill does is to create some limited jurisdiction so that if a group that owns a cemetery fails to care for a veteran’s grave, a family has a solution to that problem. This is an important issue for veterans and their families.”
Ed says many others in Branford lent their support to this bill, including Branford’s RTM, which signed a letter of support under the coordinated effort of RTM majority leader Ray Ingraham (R, District 5) and minority leader Tracy Everson (D, District 5).
“Branford’s RTM, Democrats and Republicans, teamed up to write their letter of support for the Senator’s bill; and every member of the RTM unanimously supported and signed the letter of support,” says Ed.
On March 7 in Hartford, the Veterans’ and Military Affairs Committee met on the bill. Ultimately, the committee voted 13 to 7 to give a favorable report on a substitute bill, SB 642, co-sponsored by state senators Paul Cicarella (R, 34) and Anthony L. Nolan (D, 39). The revised bill seeks to establish a working group to develop a process for families to file complaints about cemetery neglect of family members’ military graves. It’s now before the Connecticut General Assembly. If approved, it would become effective as of July 1.
While there is still more to be done, Ed says he has been strongly encouraged by letters, emails, and conversations with many members of both veteran and non-veteran families statewide about their engagement in the effort. He applauds them all and hopes their continuing efforts will help clear a path to ensure decent cemetery upkeep of thousands of markers statewide.
“There is momentum now, and it’s because of all of the people who are getting behind this. It’s not me—it’s them,” says Ed. “It’s more people than I can name. I am so grateful to them all, and I hope we can keep the momentum going.”