I had the privilege of attending a burial ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery the other day. The veteran being interred wasn’t special, except to family and friends. And he was special to his countrymen in the sense that he was an American and a veteran of World War II — one of the thousands who pass away each day.
He will remain nameless; one of the unknown millions of American patriots who served their country and the world in the cause of human dignity and freedom, and now — on this appropriately gray, rainy and blustery day in early May — he would be laid to rest among his comrades under the endless rows of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery.
Every American should attend a burial at one of our national military cemeteries, whatever your relationship to the deceased, even if you have none at all. The ceremony is short and powerful, polished by age, immune from the whims of fashion, and with a meaning above and beyond the simple interment of one old soldier.
The cortege on this early day in May first appears on a hillock overlooking a field of fresh graves. A color guard precedes a horse-drawn caisson. The flag-draped coffin is escorted by body bearers and an escort platoon. A military band follows.
Cortege and mourners proceed to the burial ground. Near the grave site, the cortege stops, and with a flourish of military precision, the coffin is carried to a tent where the family is consoled and the flag is presented.
The ceremony focuses on an individual, of course; it is for his family and friends. But it also serves as mark of a nation’s respect and the collective need for a mourning ritual honoring those who have been willing to offer their lives to ensure the survival of liberty and the dignity of common people: government of the people, by the people and for the people.
The pretentious pomp and clatter of Prussianism are foreign to Americans. We abhor war even while realizing it is sometimes necessary, and so — amidst the bustle and hum of busy lives — we honor our veterans in death by one of the necessary rituals of nationhood; by an acknowledgement that our country is more than a mere community of producers in atomized economic units. We are a people bound together by a devotion to a political creed of ordered liberty, beliefs affirmed and given added meaning by these ceremonies in all their republican simplicity.
The burial ceremony has the quiet devotion and meditative quality of a religious ritual. Its evolutions and prayerful words unfold with a majestic precision and economy of movement as generals, lieutenants and privates are committed to the earth. All made more affecting as the simplicity and dignity impart a transcendent purity to the powerful gestures of respect for flag and country.
In their unchanging repetition day-by-day and down through the years, in the very doing, these rites act as a quiet but insistent call to the spirit, like reciting from the Book of Common Prayer; or repeating the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead; or progressing through a Rosary in a quiet communion with God.
The ceremony continues as a small military band, discreetly off to the side, plays “My Country ‘tis of Thee”; in its turn the spit and polish of a firing party of seven appears to the right and discharges three volleys; and then as the symbolic centerpiece of the ceremony the servicemen begin to fold Old Glory.
With choreographed movements worthy of the most accomplished ballet, the men remove the flag from the coffin and with loving care and military precision fold it into a precise triangle. When they are finished, the sanctified object — sacred in a way only American military families can truly understand — is closely examined for perfection by the commanding officer, who with a few quiet words then presents it to the widow.
All move slowly to the grave site over rough ground and intermittent clumps of trampled grass. There are freshly installed squares of sod around the most recently consecrated graves sites; then older pieces beyond that have become increasingly like a settled carpet stretching off among the older head stones. Next to the freshly dug grave is a piece of plywood beneath a pile of the newly turned earth: the practical American rough and ready amidst the dignity of final rites.
A military chaplain says a few words recalling the deceased. He offers a final prayer. A murmured “amen” rises from the assembled mourners, and the commanding officer quietly announces that the ceremony is over.
Taps is sounded. And then mourners begin to make their way back to their cars and their busy lives, as members of the “Old Guard” — the Third Infantry Regiment responsible for burials at Arlington and for guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier — return to their quarters to prepare for the next burial.
As all move to return to their cars, the pulse of a lone drum dies away into the life sounds of the surrounding city.
Another American soldier has joined his comrades, boys coming home at last from Texas or California or Illinois or Mississippi to their final resting place in the pacific fields at Arlington — and into the hearts of his countrymen.
Rest in peace, old soldier. Rest in Peace this Memorial Day, and every day hereafter.