Tree becomes a memorial in the Veterans Cemetery

Barbara Hootman

There is a stately, old holly tree in the State Veterans Cemetery with hundreds of wind chimes and mementos hanging from its limbs. When a breeze activates the chimes, the tree becomes musical. The wind chimes seem to be tuned to play in harmony with each other.

In 2004, Howard Willet was laid to rest in the cemetery close to the old holly tree that he liked, and in view of the mountains that he loved.

“I wanted to see the place where my husband would be buried, so my daughter took me to the cemetery,” Louise Willet, his widow, said. “We noticed that a small cast iron toy train had fallen from the tree. The next day, a daughter-in-law (Cheryl Sullins) suspended a plastic horse from one of the tree’s limbs. She owned horses, and Howard loved them.”

A “singing tree” with wind chimes has been a tradition at many cemeteries through the decades. Many people believe the interaction between natural forces and human imagination demonstrates the harmony between nature and man, and in a soothing and melodic way.

In some Southern cemeteries, people place wind chimes to ward off evil spirits. Spirit bottles hanging from cemetery trees is a Creole custom. People hang them from the limbs of a tree and when the wind blows it is said that the spirits are trapped.

Darlene Schleider of Black Mountain is Louise Willet’s daughter. As a special remembrance for Howard, she had the first wind chimes placed in the holly tree. Sullins, her sister-in-law, climbed high in the holly tree and placed it there.

“It is still there today,” Schleider said. “Howard loved wind chimes, and it gives us a good feeling that others have left chimes over the years to remember their loved ones. We don’t know any of the people who leave mementos on the tree.”

Howard Willet enlisted in the Navy when he was 17 years old and had three siblings who also served in the military. One brother died during his military service. Willet was widowed when he met Louise later in life and convinced her to marry him.

“He was as good as if I took a Sears catalog and wrote out an order for him,” she said. And then ...

“We had been to a niece’s wedding,” she said, “and when we returned home he took his new suit off. I teasingly told him to be careful with it and hang it right because it would be his burying clothes. The next morning I found him in his favorite chair dead.”

Louise resides at Mountain Wellness Center in Ridgecrest.

“I can no longer go to the cemetery because I can’t get in and out of a car,” the 89-year-old said. “But my children still pay visits to Howard’s grave and to the holly tree.”

Other people have brought wind chimes and patriotic mementos over the past 10 years and hung them in the holly tree to remember their loved ones. Often people can be found standing close to the tree listening to the chimes. Others bring Bibles and read, spending some quite meditative time with the sound of the chimes.

“We never thought remembering Howard with the hanging of a small plastic horse and the first wind chimes would develop into what has become the holly tree as a memorial,” Louise said. “Howard already had a tombstone at another cemetery, but had a special feeling for the holly tree and the view. We make sure that someone from the family visits during holidays especially.”