KILMICHAEL – In 2015, Mark Lawson was tapped to head the North Mississippi Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Kilmichael. Less than four years later, on February 1, 2019, Lawson was named cemetery director for both veterans cemeteries in Mississippi, one in Kilmichael and one in Newton.
He sees his role as an honor – a way of serving those who have served their country.
“The veterans are important,” Lawson said, shortly after her came on board in Kilmichael. “That is why I do this. They’ve earned the respect we must show them.”
Lawson, who lives in Kilmichael with his wife, Penny, splits his time between the two locations, overseeing the day-to-day operations and maintaining the standards of the National Cemetery Association.
Since Kilmichael’s cemetery was dedicated in August 2017, the 50-acre, picturesque cemetery, located on Highway 82 in Kilmichael, is now the final resting place for more than 150 service men and women, veterans, and their families. With its gleaming carillon tower at its center, the cemetery features pristine landscaping and manicured lawns in a peaceful rural setting.
Lawson oversaw every element of construction of the more than $6 million cemetery development in Kilmichael, under former Mississippi Veteran Affairs director Randy Reeves.
“[Reeves] built this cemetery, but we maintain it,” Lawson said.
Newton’s cemetery is similarly constructed, with about 1,200 buried there. In 2020, the cemetery received a $3.6 million grant, and Lawson oversaw the cemetery’s expansion of 1,500 new crypts, landscaping, and irrigation system.
Lawson began his career with Mississippi’s veterans cemeteries as the Veteran Service Officer in Newton, and he was groomed to become the cemetery director of Kilmichael.
Lawson, a native of Texas, came to Mississippi as an Air Traffic Controller First Class Petty Officer and was stationed at the Navy Air Station in Meridian. He said he and his wife came to Mississippi to retire, accepting an assignment closer to his best friend who was stationed there.
His move to Mississippi meant he would keep a promise to his three daughters – a promise to graduate from the same high school.
In December 2010, Lawson retired from the service, and due to health reasons, he was disqualified from seeking an air traffic controller position in the private sector. He explained that he discovered the position for the Veterans Service Officer at Newton, and began in June 2012.
Serving as liaison between the family and the funeral home and the cemetery, he was in charge of scheduling, ordering head stones, and organizing the committal service at the committal shelter.
A few years later, in 2015, Lawson accepted the position of cemetery director for the Kilmichael cemetery, and he and his wife relocated to Montgomery County.
“It was an opportunity to run my own cemetery – a national shrine,” Lawson said in 2017. “It was an easy decision.”
For the veterans and their families he serves, Lawson and his staffs look to ensure the utmost reverence and attention for detail in every service. This provides a sense of peace for families as they grieve the loss of a loved one.
Under his leadership, both Mississippi’s cemeteries are ranked in the top 10 veteran cemeteries in the country. In 2018, during a tri-annual inspection by the National Cemetery Association, the cemetery in Kilmichael earned a perfect score, and in Newton, during a 2017 inspection, the cemetery earned a score of 92 out of 100. Lawson said Newton should have its next inspection sometime this year and expects the score to be even higher.
“I like to hang my hat [on our national ranking] because so many time Mississippi is at the bottom [of national rankings in other areas],” Lawson said. “Mississippi is at the top.”
In December 2018, the North Mississippi Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Kilmichael made national news. Navy Aviation Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Durell Wade of Calhoun City, who died while serving on the USS Oklahoma, which was docked at Pearl Harbor when it was attacked by Japanese aircraft on December 7, 1941, was returned home for burial. Wade was one of 429 crewmen killed during the attack, and his remains were identified through DNA testing. He was interred in his native state on the 77th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Lawson said another soldier killed at Pearl Harbor will be returned to Mississippi and buried in the Newton Cemetery later this year.
With the national spotlight on Mississippi’s veteran cemeteries, national, state, and local officials are in attendance, and they can see firsthand the care provided by the cemetery staff for interment of veterans and their families.
“They understand when they come out here that they are really walking on hallowed ground,” Lawson said. “And when we do a special service like that for one of the greatest generations we’ve had, they definitely understand our purpose, and that is taking care of our veterans and their families.”
Lawson credits his assistant directors in Kilmichael, Bill Rhine, and Newton, Terry Tyler, and the cemetery staffs at each location for their efforts in maintaining the highest standards of service. He said the transition to cemetery director for both cemeteries was made with relative ease thanks to their support.
2021 brought Lawson a new challenge. Earlier this year, he qualified to seek a position on the Kilmichael Board of Aldermen, representing Ward 5. He was the only candidate to qualify for the position and will be sworn in July 2021.
“I’ve always wanted to dabble in politics,” Lawson said. “I was asked to run, and I said yes. I’ve always been interested in how legislation is made.”
Lawson said he decided to run for the seat because he thought he could bring a new skillset and ideas to the board.
Directing two cemeteries and serving as an elected official, Lawson finds time to serve the community as a volunteer. He is currently in his third year as the commander of the American Legion Post 52 in Winona, and he serves as a guest pastor occasionally. In the past, Lawson pastored on a full and part-time basis.
“I am preaching at the Morris Hill Homecoming, and I’ll do weddings and funerals, but I’m not pastoring now,” Lawson said.
Married to wife, Penny, for 29 years, the couple are the parents of three daughters, Michele Fail of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Madison Regan of Patuxent River, Maryland, and Lauren Lawson of Kilmichael. They also have four granddaughters.