We buried my husband yesterday. It was a beautiful and moving ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. As Don had retired as a Lt. Col., he was entitled to full honors. This included a caisson (horse-drawn cart), Air Force band, honor guard, color guard, bugler, and 21-gun salute (seven rifles, three volleys – one, by the way, a woman – Don would have liked that). In addition, there was the piper (the groom from the wedding last week).
We met at the administration building, and the procession moved from there to the transfer point, where we met the Air Force band, the honor guard, bugler, color guard, and the caisson. The children, grandchildren, piper, and I chose to walk behind the caisson and honor guard for the procession to the graveside. The honor guard were also the pallbearers. Every step is precisely choreographed.
At the graveside, the honor guard held the flag taught over the coffin for the entirety of the service, until it was time to fold it and present it. The band played. The Air Force chaplain read Psalm 84 as I had requested. Our own minister spoke. We prayed. The bugler played taps. The honor guard folded the flag and the chaplain presented it to me. The guns volleyed. The piper played. At the end, guests returned to their cars, and the family stayed a little longer to place rocks or roses on the coffin. Don was truly honored.
Our son is already buried in this grave. I know the spot well. It’s in the flight path of National Airport. Don liked that. Sean would have liked that, too. Several planes flew by during the service. Fitting. You can see the Air Force Memorial from the gravesite, as well (in the photo it would be behind the photographer). Don liked that, too. It’s a nice place. Our minster made reference to Don’s final resting place for his mortal remains. It’s not a bad final resting place. And then I started to think about that.
So here’s the thing. Don got all these honors because he served his country and we loved him. And he was a Lt. Col. I’m not sure what rank you have to reach to rate all the honors, but I’m wondering why we think someone’s contribution is greater just because his rank was greater? A Staff Sergeant (who was a specialist at the time) is being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor this week. Clearly his worth hasn’t been determined by his rank. This is one way we judge, or pre-judge people.
Still, no matter the rank, if a person is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, or any national cemetery, it’s a nice final resting place. If it’s really final.
I mean, we intend it to be final. We honor our dead, and we expect that they will lie undisturbed for all time, because, after all, they were humans, people whom we loved, and we shouldn’t mess with them, right?
Unless we send them on museum tours a few thousand years later because, you know, then they aren’t our people. I think Steve Martin wrote a song about that in the ’70s. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bl5dZxA-rZY
Why is it that we expect everyone to honor our wishes and beliefs when we don’t honor those who went before? I’ve certainly seen mummies in museums. And preserved bodies dug up from graves and put on display, because they were prehistoric graves, or pre-Columbian graves, so they were Other people. Not like us people.
I’m just wondering how much more respect we might have for living people if we started having more respect for the dead – even the long-ago dead. I mean, if we think of ancient Egyptians as Other people, people whose graves are little more than a curiosity to be studied and displayed, then how much of a stretch is it to think of contemporary Egyptians as Other people whose rights aren’t as important as our own? If we dig up pre-Columbian graves from South America and display the bodies in museums, how much of a stretch is it to think of contemporary Latinos as Other people who can be used for our own convenience?
My theology doesn’t depend upon my husband’s earthly remains remaining undisturbed for all time. That’s not really my point. Cemeteries are for the living. But when we can honor the dead, how much more can we honor the living?
So I’ll continue to visit the grave that I know already. I’ll look at the planes and smile. I’ll think of my husband and my son. I’ll look around at all of the other soldiers, sailors, and airmen, and give thanks for their service and pray for peace for their souls. And I hope that I will remember that there are so many more souls that have gone long before, and I will pray for them as well.
In the end, we have all been children of the same God.
That’s it, that’s all I’ve got.
Honor guard holding the flag at Don’s service.