Tucson Oddity: Cemetery's 'Veteran Islands' honor US military service

2012-12-03T00:00:00Z 2014-09-01T17:13:20Z Tucson Oddity: Cemetery's 'Veteran Islands' honor US military serviceKimberly Matas Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
December 03, 2012 12:00 am  • 

"No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main," wrote poet John Donne.

The sentiment is especially true at South Lawn Cemetery, 5401 S. Park Ave., where burial in the grassy medians is a high honor.

The medians are actually "Veteran Islands," according to Jessica S. McDunn, a spokeswoman for Service Corporation International. The company owns mortuaries and cemeteries throughout North America, including five in Tucson. The island plots were developed in 1987 and purchased by veterans' organizations for vets and their families.

The east island includes a concrete "V" with flags and bronze medallions representing each branch of the U.S. military.

East of that island is a monument commemorating the first visit of the Dignity Memorial Vietnam Wall to Tucson in 1991.

The west island has grave sites for veterans and their families.

The south island features a monument commemorating the 2005 visit of the Dignity Memorial Vietnam Wall. In remembrance, a time capsule was filled with memorabilia that was left at the wall and later buried in a vault.

South Lawn Cemetery opened in 1936. In the early years, only 9 1/2 acres of the 53 1/2-acre cemetery had been developed. It included a chapel, a crematorium, an administration building, a caretaker's building and a memorial urn garden. Today South Lawn is 87 acres, with 35 acres still available for interments, McDunn said. About 35,000 people are interred at South Lawn.

In 1946 a fountain was added to South Lawn.

A 35-foot "music tower" was dedicated in 1959 to a longtime Tucsonan, Jennie R. Karch, who raised the money to build it. Karch, however, did not live to hear the tower chime. She died a year before it was finished.

Five years later, a $200,000 concrete mausoleum was completed at South Lawn. In addition to 1,025 crypts, the structure featured three private rooms for families, a chapel, two columbarium rooms and a flower-arranging room. Months after the first mausoleum was completed, construction began on a second $1.5 million, 2,370-crypt mausoleum.

The improvements attracted the interest of businessmen, and in December 1965, the cemetery was sold to the owner of a Los Angeles-based chain of cemeteries. The new owner promptly gave South Lawn a new name: Tucson Memorial Park. A year later the same company acquired Grantwood Memorial Park, now called East Lawn Palms Mortuary and Cemetery, on East Grant Road.

The cemeteries changed hands a couple more times in the intervening decades. Now South Lawn, East Lawn Palms Cemetery and Mortuary, Desert Rose Cremation & Burial, Funeraria del Angel and Heather Mortuary and Chapel all are owned by Service Corporation International. The most recent development at the park is the October addition of 140 double-depth lawn crypts in the Jardin del Angel.

Got an oddity?

Is there something you've noticed while driving through Tucson that has piqued your curiosity? Or is there some piece of Old Pueblo history you've wondered about? Drop us a line, and we'll look into it.

Contact the Star newsroom at oddity@azstarnet.com or 807-7776.

Contact reporter Kimberly Matas at kmatas@azstarnet.com or at 573-4191.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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