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Tom Flynn, the Man Behind "America's Cemetery"

Photo courtesy America's Cemetery

Pennsylvania funeral director honored with an international cemetery award

Tom Flynn, the founder of America's Cemetery, who was honored with the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association's 2018 Lasting Impact Award, died June 18 after a battle with cancer. He was 79.

Flynn might not have realized how innovative his career would become when he bought his first cemetery – in 1974, in Chicago – or even his second, three years later in Hermitage, Pennsylvania. Back then it was known as Hillcrest Memorial Park, but Flynn would eventually rename it America's Cemetery to reflect its patriotic focus on honoring heroes.

That transformation began in early 1980, when Flynn established on his cemetery's grounds a powerful vigil for the 52 Americans held hostage in Iran from 1979 through 1981. In the early days of the hostage crisis, Flynn was enraged by the situation – "I knew that it was our soil that they had invaded, and you just don't do that," he later remembered in an interview for the Sharon Herald. He wanted to do something to show he cared, so he initially erected in the cemetery an American flag surrounded by the flags of all 50 U.S. states, meant to represent the hostages.

But when the crisis had dragged on to 100 days, Flynn thought bigger and changed the display. It became 100 U.S. flags marching down both sides of one of the cemetery's avenues. An eternal flame, lit in a ceremony by the father of one of the hostages, burned in the cemetery. And each day of the hostage crisis, Flynn added another flag. The flags were donated, many by the families of deceased U.S. veterans, who gave Flynn the flags that had covered their loved ones' coffins. It was an added layer of patriotic symbolism to the ever-growing display.

When the hostages were released after 444 days, the display gained a permanent name – the Avenue of 444 Flags – and became the highly visible centerpiece of a cemetery where Flynn would continue to find ways to honor America's heroes.

"From the moment I met Tom Flynn, his dedication to veterans bubbled over," Kim Evenson, Legacy's chief marketing officer, noted a few months before his death. "He has always cared for veterans in the same way that you care for your family. You just get the sense that he's using every last breath in his body to drive forward this dream of making sure that everyone is remembered."

Over the years, Flynn added a Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and later came his well-known War on Terror Memorial. Both honor the U.S. veterans who died in those conflicts, and with the War on Terror Memorial, he kept up the immediacy that he started with the Avenue of Flags – new names are etched onto the memorial's stones regularly, forming an ever-evolving document of the fight for freedom from terrorism. Not long before his death, he was still discussing potential future projects, including a 9/11 memorial that would have included victims of other terror attacks as well, such as the mass killings in San Bernardino, Orlando, and Nice, France.

Flynn created special sections in America's Cemetery for veterans – whose burials take place free of charge – and he was determined to honor not just the decorated heroes but also the veterans who have been all but forgotten. In 2012, he launched a program in which funeral homes were invited to send him unclaimed cremated remains of veterans who may have been homeless or otherwise unattached. Flynn gave the remains a respectful burial in America's Cemetery.

Honoring American heroes was a driving theme of Flynn's life, one that he did with purpose from his earliest days in funeral service. But another of his innovations happened almost by accident. Flynn was just looking to get a golden retriever as a pet when he stumbled upon Canine Companions for Independence, which trains service dogs. He ended up helping pioneer a grief support dog program, one that became so popular that Canine Companions couldn't begin to keep up with demand.

Flynn's grief therapy dogs – first Derek and later Solomon – were the first to do what's now a growing trend, work in a funeral home to comfort mourners. Derek helped the children of 9/11 victims, too; Flynn took him to their group therapy sessions and let them hug, pet, and play with the dog. Today we see articles about funeral home dogs all over social media, but Flynn was the pioneer of this immensely comforting therapy more than 15 years ago.

Flynn knew as well as any pet lover just how important the bond between an animal and a human can be, and how deeply we can grieve when a pet dies. So he created more innovations: He added a pet garden to his cemetery, allowing animals to be buried there. He opened Hillcrest-Flynn Pet Funeral Home and Crematory. And he established an area of the cemetery where humans could be buried along with their pets, the first facility of its kind.

Looking back on all he brought to America's Cemetery, it's no surprise that ICCFA honored Flynn with their Lasting Impact Award. He touched countless lives, not least those of his colleagues in the funeral industry. Jim Price of Park Lawn Corporation presented the award to Flynn, calling him "a natural to be celebrated" and noting, "Tom’s dedication to honor those who have died in the name of freedom and teach future generations of the high price of freedom is a testament to his vision, moral code and character."

Legacy CEO Stopher Bartol agreed: "Tom left an indelible impression on me the very first time I met him in the early days of building what became Legacy.com. We stayed in touch ever since. He was a patriot and one of the nicest guys you could meet, and his work honoring service members will build connections with generations to come."

Flynn is survived by two sons, Tom Jr. and John; three grandchildren, Patrick, Jessica, and Hans; and two sisters, Margaret Mary Butler and Kathleen Armstrong. 

The family suggests memorial donations in Flynn's honor to Avenue of 444 Flags Foundation, PO Box 1243, Hermitage, PA 16148 or Hillcrest-Flynn Pet Care Foundation.