The sun is shining, but my thoughts are darker, more somber today. It may be our drive to the Veteran’s cemetery. Who goes to a graveyard for a drive? But it is Memorial Day weekend, and the time we reflect on all the people, their character, the joy they brought to our lives, that we’ve loved and lost.
I’ve always found cemeteries interesting. The first time I went to Europe I lost my passport wandering in a cemetery outside Exincourt, a little town in eastern France. The cemetery was on the quiet outskirts of the village, as French cemeteries often are, and full of granite tombs and statuary. These kinds of resting places are called “monumental” cemeteries, this as opposed to our American “lawn” cemeteries.
At the VA cemetery my eyes scanned row upon row of the same simple, white headstones (government issued). I thought about the difference between soldier grave sites and civilian cemeteries.
Civilian cemeteries are cities of the dead, and like cities of the living they’re filled with a kaleidoscope of people from different backgrounds. You can see this easily just reading through some of the epitaphs on the headstones: “I told you I was sick,” and “I was hoping for a pyramid.” A gay veteran buried in a civilian cemetery had engraved on his headstone: “A Gay Vietnam Veteran, When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
Names, birth/death dates, and rank are typically the only thing carved on military tablets. I stood in front of a “Stephen” and a “Rita,” both corporals at one time. Neither appeared to have died in combat. I wondered what made them join the military. I don’t think many young people enlist to become killing machines. Rather, they see being in the military as serving their country, or a way to get training in a specialized field without the expense and headache of college. Perhaps they like all the benefits military service offers, i.e. free funeral, burial, and memorial.
Though people buried in the VA cemetery had military experience, this does not mean they made a career of the military–or even that it defined who they later became.
I know a man and his wife who plan to be cremated and have their ashes scattered over the Memory Garden at a VA cemetery. And though it’s true the man served during the Viet Nam War, after that, his life took an entirely different path. He married, moved out west, and had a long career as a teacher.
What we did in our youthful years though, often has lasting significance. My son is a software developer, but every year or so he gathers together with a few of his Marine buddies to remember those crazy times at Camp Pendleton or stationed in Hawaii—just like college friends do when they look back on dorm life. I don’t know if my son’s even considered where he wants to be buried yet. People younger than fifty rarely do. These practical considerations are called morbid fascination in the young. But my son has the option of a veteran’s burial—a choice, by the way, I don’t have.
This being the weekend before Memorial Day, the VA cemetery, like cemeteries everywhere, is beginning to be covered with colorful bouquets of flowers. The flowers are beautiful and smell good, but I prefer sedate lawns of green grass and hushed breezes, the cemetery without the holiday dressing. When we drove out of the VA cemetery, I thought of an old verse I saw once engraved on a colonial-era headstone in New England. Apparently, this poem was a popular Puritan epitaph, the words carved right under medieval skeletons and imps. Though meant to be foreboding, the poem instead gave me a sense of poignancy: the fleeting nature of our time on earth.
“Remember me as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I,
As I am now, so you must be,
Prepare for death and follow me.”
Image credit: Veteran’s Cemetery