DIXON – Under a slate gray sky, with rain misting on the shoulders of their dress uniforms, Air Force buglers played taps. An American flag flapped at half-staff high above rows of marble headstones, each engraved with a name and a military branch. A chaplain read a poem, "Freedom Is Not Free."
Orrin Finch's casket, draped with another flag, was perched on a platform inside a small pavilion. Friends and relatives gathered with somber faces, hands on their hearts or in quiet salute.
Finch, who died last month at age 85, never saw combat duty during World War II. He joked that he fought "the battle of Miami Beach," from the Air Force post where he worked as a meteorologist. Later he went to Stanford University, where he earned undergraduate and law degrees, and worked as an attorney in Sacramento.
But Finch remained a proud veteran, and last week he was laid to rest with full honors at the only cemetery in Northern California dedicated to military men and women.
"My father loved his country so much that he tried to enlist in the military when he was 16," said Finch's daughter Anne.
"When he heard about this place," she said, gesturing toward the meticulously tended grounds of the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery, "he knew he wanted to be buried here."
The cemetery will have no special services today, Veterans Day. But on Monday, as the national observance continues, staff members will resume the rigorous burial schedule, holding a service on average every half-hour. The cemetery, just outside Dixon, has become one of the busiest in the nation since it opened in 2006.
President Abraham Lincoln created the first national military cemetery in the 1860s for the burial of Civil War soldiers. The country now has 131 such memorial sites, but many are full. California has nine national cemeteries, three of which are closed to new burials.
More space will be needed in coming years to put to rest the veterans of World War II and the wars in Korea and Vietnam, as well as younger veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. In 2003, Congress approved six new national cemeteries, including one in Bakersfield. That property opened for burials in 2009.
The Sacramento Valley National Cemetery, in Solano County 30 miles west of Sacramento, encompasses 561 acres, about 62 of which have been developed since its opening. During its first year of operation, the cemetery held about six memorial services a week, said director Cynthia Nunez. Today, it conducts an average of 13 every day and has 13 full-time employees. It is the 16th busiest national cemetery in the country, said Nunez.
"We're working on developing two more sections of the cemetery," she said. "We are busy. But there will be no shortage of burial space here in our lifetimes."
About 350,000 veterans live in the Sacramento region. Already, the caskets and cremated remains of more than 14,000 servicemen and women and their families have been interred at the cemetery on property where corn, beans, squash and other vegetables once grew.
The National Cemetery Association bought the farmland in 2004, and two years later it opened for burials. Before then, people in the Sacramento area had to travel to Gustine, in Merced County, to bury a veteran at a national cemetery.
Most veterans discharged from active duty or who die while on active duty, as well as their spouses and children, are eligible to be buried in a national cemetery at no cost. Exceptions include those who were dishonorably discharged or who have committed capital crimes, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"It is a debt that we have to repay to those who gave everything for our freedom," said Nunez.
Military veterans often tell their families well in advance of their deaths that they want to be buried at a national cemetery, although the cemeteries do not reserve grave space, she said.
"Veterans want to be around their comrades," Nunez said.
Nan Mahon of Elk Grove is certain that her husband, Clyde Ingalsbe, would have approved of her decision to bury him at the Northern California cemetery.
Ingalsbe, a retired CHP officer who served in the Navy during the Korean War, never made his interment wishes known, his wife said. After he died of cancer in September, she learned about the national cemetery near Dixon.
"It's been a lot of years since he was in the Navy, but he never got completely past it," Mahon said. "A piece of his heart was always with it."
She visited the grounds and found them lovely, she said, and learned that her husband could be buried at no cost to her. "It was a beautiful ceremony, quite solemn and patriotic," she said. "I have no doubt he would have chosen this."
One of the men charged with ensuring that veterans are put to rest with proper dignity is Cesar Balmaceda, who served 24 years in the Air Force and now spends his days as caretaker at Sacramento Valley National Cemetery.
"It's a very rewarding job," said Balmaceda, who watched last week as construction equipment chewed into the ground where Finch was to be buried.
"Sometimes, it's very emotional. You have a special connection to these people, even if you don't know them."
During Finch's service, Balmaceda and his crew waited quietly outside the pavilion. Inside, where the walls were decorated with brass plates bearing symbols of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard, a soldier stood on either side of his casket. Their faces stoic, they removed the flag from Finch's coffin. Their white-gloved hands working in perfect symmetry, they folded the flag into a tight triangle.
With the silence broken only by the chirps of birds, one of the soldiers leaned forward and handed the triangle to Matthew Finch, Orrin Finch's only grandson, who sat with tears in his eyes beside his mother, Anne.
"My dad truly believed that veterans should be honored," Anne Finch said. "This was his last honor."
As mourners got into their cars and began pulling away, chaplain Lisa Schilbe pointed skyward and smiled. The sun was beaming through the clouds.
Finch's service was the last of the afternoon. The cemetery's soaring flag, which is lowered to half-staff to honor veterans during their interments, would soon be raised.
Come morning, with 11 more veterans slated to be put to rest, it would be lowered once again.